Communication as Technique

A very dramatically explosive piece of mail.

I mentioned yesterday that there was another technique I wanted to write about which required some preamble. Now that the preamble is done, this is the original post.

This is one of my go-to techniques for making a world feel lived in, but I just realized that I’ve never actually written it down or even explained it before, so I figured I’d rectify that.

Very simply, when I introduce an NPC, I always put a little bit of extra thought into how the PCs will get back in touch with them.

Like I said, very simple, but the devil is in the details. The root of this comes from one of those awkward bits of simulation it’s thinking – in the absence of ubiquitous cell phones or the like, it is not very easy to actually coordinate communication with someone, especially someone who might not be inclined to give you their home address (and who in their right mind would trust the average group of adventurers with their address?)

The solution to this, both in game and in fiction, is to tie people to places. For some, this might be an actual address where messages can be sent, but the idea still applies to those looking to be more mysterious. They should still have some sort of anchoring location where they check in, so that if they need to be reached, there is a place to go or leave a message or the like.

This should be true even if they don’t want to be found. Even if they don’t want to communicate with the PCs, they presumably want to communicate with SOMEONE, and they will have at least one place for doing so, and that’s useful to know.

Now, there is plenty of space to elaborate on this idea. If we’re dealing with spies and intrigue, then characters will have entire collections of places they use in this way, plus various rules and precautions for dead drops, secrets, codes and so on. If you’re doing a game with intrigue elements, the topic of how things get communicated is a rich source of game material. But even if you set that aside, the most basic form of this technique will still help your game.

This is because anything that ties a character to the setting in a palpable way stands to enrich your game. If the NPC is tied to a place, they have indirect ties to anyone else tied to that place, and that’s incredibly powerful. Connections between elements are what make a setting feel alive, and this is an easy way to add more connections without doing any extra work. After all, this is a question you’d need to answer anyway, so why not do so usefully?

In terms of yesterday’s post, I’d call out that the question of how you communicate with someone is an opportunity to ask an asset question, one which connects a person to a place. You might link to an activated or potential asset as the situation dictates, but by the simple act of tying things in, you’re enriching your game.

Conservation and the City

I was writing up another technique I use to make cities feel lived in, and I realized that it rested on another technique that I should probably explain first, so that’s what this is. While this advice is technically for a city game, it’s applicable to any game where you might want to give the setting a rich, lived in feel.

Ok, so the first step in this technique is to keep a list of assets that you can easily reference. “Assets”, in this case, are elements of the setting that the characters have interacted with, most often in the form of NPCs, Places and Factions. The lines between these things can be blurry – a person might be tied to a place (like the bartender at a tavern) or a person might represent a faction – and that’s fantastic. Err on the side of making your list long. If The Church is a faction the group has dealt with, and Sister Annalise is a member of the church but also an NPC they’ve dealt with, list them separately.

I will note that in practice, I often find that a list like this ends up naturally dividing into “potential” and “activated” assets. Potential assets are ones which exist in the setting, but have not yet actually come up in play in any meaningful way. The table may know ABOUT them, but they have not really come up. Activated assets, on the other hand, are those which have actually been a part of play.

It’s reasonable to keep a list which includes both, since the list of potential assets can often be a useful source of inspiration. However, make sure to leave yourself space – as much as it’s easy to think that there will be a tidy movement of elements from potential to activated, I have yet to have a game where I do not end up with some surprises on the activated list.

Blades in the Dark offers very easy tools for creating this list. Every character starts with at least three potential assets (Positive & Negative contact plus vice dealer) and the Crew itself introduces one more. Past that, the faction sheet is one giant pile of potential assets.

That said, Blades also introduces one piece of caution – be conservative about considering assets to be active until they’re really been part of play. It is easy to look at character’s connections and consider them active from the start, but they’re really not until the whole table has gotten to see them in action. If you treat an asset as active before there has been actual play, you risk misunderstanding what players are actually interested in. This becomes an even more pronounced risk when you start thinking about an asset as active because you’re excited about it, but it hasn’t actually hit the table.

Ok, so you have your list: now what?

Well, this is the easy part – as a GM, you will frequently find yourself faced with questions that are best answered with an asset. That is, questions like “Who is interested in this?”, “Where is this happening?”, “Who else is there” and so on. You’ll recognize these as they come up because they are the questions you ask when it feels like things are happening in too much of a vacuum, and the world needs to be part of the discussion.

When your game starts and you come to one of those questions, you should activate an asset (or just invent a new one and add it). Having the list on hand will hopefully make this process pretty simple, and with practice it gets simpler. And, honestly, this is probably what you’d do anyway, just with a little more formality.

The real trick kicks in when you hit a tipping point in the number of activated assets. There’s no hard number for this, but it’s probably around three per player (including the GM). It’s easy to spot this tipping point because at some point you will have an asset question, and the best answer will be an active asset rather than a potential one. This is a good moment – at that moment, things in the game start tying together in a way that feels satisfying and organic. It rocks.

That is, however, not the real point of magic.

Real magic happens once you’ve passed the tipping point and you get another asset question, and it doesn’t seem like any of the active assets are a good answer. At that point, you must do the following:

Pick an active asset anyway, and run with it.

This may seem weird or unintuitive, but that is the point. This is a forcing function for you as a GM, because doing this will force you to create new connections that had not previously existed in your vision of the setting. This will shake up your expectations and make things feel more organic and dynamic, but it will also make things more fun for you as a GM as you try to figure out how to Apollo 13 this stuff.

Once you’ve done this, it may be a while before you need to do it again. Keep using active assets when you can. Activate passive assets if you need to keep things fresh. But remember this technique and bust it out from time to time in order to keep you and your table on their toes. The results will be rewarding and memorable.

The Elements of a Job

I’ve been running Blades in the Dark again lately, since I find its cadence of play works pretty well for me online. However, I seem to have made my life a little more complicated, as the players had a crew idea (a cadre of ex-spies who had survived the fall of their patron – some Burn Notice influence on that) that didn’t point to any particular crew type, and they ended up choosing Smugglers, because they liked the idea of moving secrets around.

This is a cool idea, and I wanted to support it, but I was not prepared. But I am hoping I’ve learned my lesson.

I have a curious take on the relationship between Crews and Jobs in Blades, because I feel like there is a genuine divide between core and non-core crew types. To my mind, Assassins, Bravos & Shadows are the core types because their jobs all rest on a similar underlying pattern of action which the default rules of Blades supports incredibly well. On the other hand, Hawkers and Smugglers (and Grifters) have different patterns that I find require a bit more work to fit.1

There is probably a cool way to articulate these as design patterns, but for simplicity, I’m going to illustrate with how I think about job creation when I’m running blades. If I am running a “core” job – that is, assault or stealth2 – then I need four things, and I benefit from a handful more.

Required

Objective – What is the target of action? (That is, the thing being stolen, the person being killed etc)

Location – Where is this happening?

Opposition – Who is resisting this? (Usually because they own the target, but maybe for other reasons)3

Initiation – The point of entry to action. This is recognizable as the missing detail in the planning and engagement rules.

Useful

Complications – These are all the things that are ready to go wrong and shift the job. The most common sort of complication is another interested party – they may not be involved when the job starts, but once the job has started, they might show up or make trouble. Always possible to just make these up on the fly, but past play usually creates a deep reservoir of opportunities to draw from.

Pressure – Why here and now? What’s going on that THIS was the time to run the job, not some better, more perfect time and place? There are all sorts of answers – time pressure, limited windows of opportunity, looming threats and so on, and this is a classic element of the genre (all of them), but this is also a bit of an oddball in Blades. The somewhat wibbly wobbly nature of time paired with the complicated issue of motivation can mean jobs are happening without any pressure to speak of. But if there IS pressure, the game supports it well with clocks.

Value – Why does this macguffin matter? Often this is very straightforward – it’s worth cash – but usually there’s more to it (and even if it’s just worth cash, it’s worth cash to someone.) Is this the means to another end? Is the value of this in the thing it will be traded for? And if it is non-monetary, where is the coin going to come from? You can be a bit hand-wavey about this, but you always want to consider it, because the job payoff is a critical part of the game economy.

Useful Vs Required

Now, to be clear, If I were to ever run a job with only the required elements, I would feel a little naked. The useful elements are the source of a lot of fun and engagement, but I don’t call them required for four reasons.

First, you can run a bare bones job without them, and for a new Blades GM, that might even be the best way to do it.

Second, the useful things can actually be a bit of a crutch – as a GM, we are sometimes pressured to draw in a complication on short notice, and the easiest move is often to bring in something external rather than make the current job more interesting. This is not always a bad move – hell, it’s often a good one – but it can contribute to the actual job feeling like the least important part of play.

Third, there is no consistency in which useful parts you’ll want to bring to bear. You might use some or all of them on any given job, but the precise combination is inconsistent and unpredictable.

Fourth, there may be no reason to add these things because they might already be implicit in the core elements. For example: if the location of the job is the Offices of the Ministry, then the potential complications are baked right in. If the core elements are rich enough, they are often enough.

But even with all those note, this remains a pretty solid model, which can expand or contract according to needs and details. It also is has some curious nuance regarding where each of these data points come from, because they can come from the players, the GM, or just be sort of ambiently known.

To illustrate: The point of initiation is always explicitly authored by the players as part of the planning and engagement phase. The other three points are a bit more flexible.

If the players want to steal something that has already been established as existing in the setting, from a known location, from a faction they have already dealt with, those are all ambiently available information. There may be almost no authorship required to get a job like this started.

I feel like this sort of ambient job is the ideal goal, though I heaven’t really examined why I feel that way. However, I also don’t run across it too often, because usually there are some unknowns that need to get answered, and which unknowns need to get answered seems both highly variable and incredibly important.

The first question is how many of these answers come from the players. For ambient answers, they might all be chosen by the players, or they might require filling in the gaps from the GM. For example, the players might really hate Frakes and want to steal something from him to strike a blow against him. The players are picking the opposition and possibly the location, but they might leave it to the GM to come up with the target, like Frakes’ latest prototype. Alternately, the players might be embracing the privileges of authority and literally just make up some or all of these answers, and let the GM fill in the details.

The more answers that come from the players, the easier things seem to go. I think this is partly because player answers are a proxy for player investment, but also because player answers are a proxy for player clarity.

Because, in contrast, the hardest point for me is when they players have a general intention, but they cannot turn it into action. An example of this is the “Well, we need money – who should we rob?” Situation. Maybe this should never come up in a well run Blades game, but I am only mortal, and have absolutely ended up in that situation, and it’s a fairly serious blank page problem.4

In the context of that list of job elements, this may be a GM prompt to offer elements that serve that purpose. That sounds a little fancy, so put more simply, if the players want to make some money but do not know what, then the GM may put forward a suggestion of something valuable that’s ripe for the picking. Of course, in that situation, the GM usually needs to come up with the other elements on the list (Opposition and Location), and that’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s definitely some amount of work. There are tricks to help with this, but the bottom line is simple – unless the players have an idea for the job, the GM needs to fill in most of the gaps.

Not a shocking realization, I know, but I lay it all out there to illustrate something essential about core jobs. While they may end up requiring work on the GM’s part, they require the least amount of work, because other jobs require more.

But that’s a topic for another day.


  1. Cultists are an even odder case, because they are not defined by the TYPE of action they pursue, but its reason and theme. If you have a crew that smuggles ghosts, the decision to go smuggler vs cult answers very different questions than what the core cycle of play looks like. As a result, Cultists might or might not be core, depending on how the crew works.
  2. And, yes, it’s true the crew types do not line up one for one with the engagement types. I’m pretty sure this is deliberate, in order to break the idea that a given crew can do only one type of job, and I applaud that. But I think some of the friction comes from the dual masters of the Blades’ emphasis on no-planning and the reader-friendly need to structure these all the same way.
  3. For Assassination, this list can collapse even further, as objective and opposition may well be the same thing, but we’ll stick with this for simplicity.
  4. Yes, aggressive player authorship is one solution to this, but I don’t like relying on it piecemeal. If that is at the heart of the game, then awesome, lean into it. But if it’s not, then it tends to be unevenly distributed, without clear practical or social rules around what’s appropriate or not.

SWOT in the Dark

Ok, nerdbusiness time.

There is a technique used in business called SWOT analysis, which is used for things like brainstorming or figuring out next steps. It’s a tool for stepping back and analyzing the reality of your business, group or the like, and hopefully gleaning insight into what to do next.

Conveniently, it is also a really handy template for adventure creation and for fleshing out your game. A PDF with the form and some directions can be downloaded here.

For purposes of illustration, I’m going to use Blades in the Dark, because the specifics of that game align particularly well with this approach, but the underlying idea applies equally well to any game where the players are a coherent group in a consistent context.

So, this technique, like so many expensive consultation driven models, is a glorified way to label four boxes. In this case, the boxes are summarized in the acronym SWOT:

4 boxes: Upper left labeled "Strengths", Upper right labeled "Weaknesses", Lower left labeled "Opportunities" and Lower right labeled "threats"

S – Strengths
W – Weaknesses
O – Opportunities
T – Threats

The practice of filling in the boxes is largely self-explanatory, but there are a few tricks that can make it a little easier and more fruitful.

Strengths

What is it that the crew does well enough that someone else might want them to do it? That is to say, while crews can do a LOT of things, this is where we focus on things that might distinguish them from other groups, both generally and specifically.

Generally, the crew type is probably a pointer towards this, but it’s also somewhat incomplete. A gang of cutters might excel at doing violence, but that is something that many groups can do. What sort of violence does this crew excel at? Do you call them when you want maximum intimidation? Do they specialize in ambushes? Are they a top notch security force?

Individual character strengths also contribute to this, but only if it can be tied clearly to the team. If one of the team members is a master of disguise, that is only a strength if the group integrates that skill into its activities, rather than is just being an adjacent activity.

It’s worth noting that the real value of this list is often found in the combinations rather than the individual elements. That is to say, if strengths include “doing violence” and “knowledge of Six Towers”, neither of those are terribly distinguishing, but in combination they suggest an obvious opportunity the next time violence is needed that depends on the details of Six Towers.

Weaknesses

On the flipside, what is the group bad at? Where are they vulnerable? What kind of jobs do they really not want to end up needing to do.

As with strengths, the crew type probably provides some pointers towards this, but it will also probably be a bit less clear cut because there’s a good chance that the players have made choices to intentionally mitigate group weaknesses. For example, even in a group of slides and lurks, there is probably one cutter who acts as the team’s muscle.

The thing is, that does not cancel the weakness, it merely mitigates it. In our prior example, this crew would still be in trouble in a rumble, even if the cutter is able to put up some resistance, so their relative inability in a fight is probably still a weakness. But if a few more members toughen up, or if the gang recruits some muscle, then they might be able to offset the weakness.

In situations like this, look for the “single point of failure” – situations where the only thing which keeps a problem at bay is one individual or resource. If something happening to that individual would expose the crew to trouble, then that’s a weakness.

Weaknesses also may cover domains of operation or information. What happens if you drop this group into high society? The Docks? A roomful of ghosts?

Sidebar – In The Middle

The ghost thing raises a key point: there are lots of things which would be bad, but are not necessarily weaknesses. Just as crews can do many things which are not necessarily their strengths, there are many things which would be bad but are not necessarily weaknesses. The key thing to identify a weakness is that this group would be worse off in this situation than a comparable group. Similarly, a strength distinguishes the group in some way.

In short, most of the things a crew can do are neither strengths nor weaknesses, but are simply facts of life.

Context absolutely plays a role in this. To use one example, crew tier is not intrinsically a weakness or a strength – it’s just a fact of life. It becomes a weakness or strength in certain situations. If a small crew has big enemies, their Tier is weakness. if a large crew is throwing their weight around on a neighborhood level, their tier is probably a strength. But for a crew operating largely around its own weight class, it’s just the way things are.

Opportunities

Opportunities are things the crew could do but haven’t yet, for one reason or another. The reason might be as dull as “haven’t gotten around to it yet” or as challenging as “if only we could get past that dragon”.

Just as the crew type provides the first pointers for strengths, the crew sheet is the first place to look for opportunities. Right off the bat, claims are something of a laundry list of opportunities for the crew. Any adjacent claim is potentially an opportunity, with the main limiter being how well or poorly it’s been fleshed out.

Faction relationships also

Note that while opportunities can be very discrete (as in the case of claims) they can also be a little bit general (as may be the case with factions) in a “there is an opportunity there but we don’t know what it is yet.” An opportunity for an opportunity is still an opportunity.

One other useful thing to look at is the intersection between opportunities and strengths, and specifically ask whether the group has the opportunity to develop new strengths.

Threats

Where weaknesses helped us understand where the crew might be vulnerable, threats help us understand who might exploit those weaknesses or otherwise do harm to the crew.

It’s important to note that while enemies may be threats, not every threat is an enemy. While an enemy might consciously choose to exploit a weakness (if they know about it), there are other forces that will exert pressure on a weakness in an utterly indifferent manner. That is, if the crew is dependent on a single source for their goods, that’s a weakness. Even if none of their enemies know about this source, then that source is still vulnerable to other forces – his enemies, sure, but also the vagaries of day to day life. If your source is Iruvian and the Ministry starts rounding up Iruvians, that is a threat to the crew even though it’s not directed at the crew at all.

None of which is to say enemies shouldn’t be tracked here. Any faction with a negative relationship with the crew probably deserves a mention in this box. Even if they’re not actively engaging the crew at the moment, they certainly won’t pass up an opportunity if the situation arises.

Using the tool

Obviously, the act of using SWOT analysis is as simple as filling out the form, but there are better and worse ways to go about it. Critically, this benefits most strongly from being a shared exercise between players and GM, because getting EVERYONE’s answers to these question is incredibly informative, especially on the subject of opportunities and threats.

Opportunities in particular are an area where the GM really wants to know how the players see things, because if they players don’t see opportunities, then the game is likely to stall. Having an exercise like this where the group contribute their answer to these questions and express opinions on this is a much healthier way to flesh this out than to have the GM just present a buffet of things that she finds interesting.

Some GMs might feel a little bit of resistance to being equally transparent about threats for fear of spoiling surprises or telegraphing their next move to the players. This can be a fair concern, depending on the specifics of the table, but in that case the concern is easily mitigated by fact that there is no need to get to specific about how the threats might manifest. The table can have an open discussion about the fact that the crew’s hq is vulnerable without the GM needing to say “and this faction is going to exploit that”. If anything, getting buy in to the existence of the threat means players will be more strongly invested if it is brought to bear.

A Few More Tricks

  • As the GM, if you are looking for ideas for your game, take a look at any group or faction connected to the crew (for good or ill) and do a SWOT analysis on them. I promise that after one or two of them
  • Almost anything in the threat box can be a clock. Hell, feel free to put clocks IN the threat box.
Same diagram as above (4 boxes: Upper left labeled "Strengths", Upper right labeled "Weaknesses", Lower left labeled "Opportunities" and Lower right labeled "threats") but with Strengths and weaknesses labeled as internal, and opportunities and threats labeled as external.
  • If it is not obvious what category something should fall into, use the following rule of thumb: Strengths and weaknesses are internal to the crew. They are things which are part of their nature, and (to at least some extent) under their control. Opportunities and threats are external to the crew, and are parts of the environment that the crew operates in, and are things to be responded to, but are not under the crews control.

Dang

Ok, so I knew I had not written here for a while, but firing this up this morning reveals that my last post was in November, and that’s a bit mortifying. Clearly, the clever answer is to dash off a brilliant post right now in an explosion of good intentions, but I know that’s a losing proposition, so I’ll beg a little more patience. I am in the midst of changing a bit of my situation in hopes of re-enabling a bit of writing time, because I deeply and genuinely miss it.

Wish me luck.

The Imprisoned

The Warlock has made a pact with one of the Imprisoned, powerful entities who have been sealed away for all time for one reason or another. Their motives and appearances are greatly varied – some are evil beings banished for their crimes. Others may have simply made the wrong enemies. Naturally, if asked, each of them can explain how they were wrongly imprisoned, but that’s unimportant – what matters is how they can help you.

Expanded Spell List

Spell LevelSpells
1st Comprehend Languages, Expeditious Retreat
2nd Knock, Rope Trick
3rd Sending, Nondetection
4th Freedom of Movement, Locate Creature
5th Legend Lore, Planar Binding

Dangerous Channelling

Your patron gives you access to extra power which is dangerous to wield. When you successfully hit a target with a damaging spell or cantrip, you may roll an extra two six sided dice. You may assign one of them as extra damage to the target, and the other as damage to yourself.

The damage type is the same as the original effect, and if the warlock has any effects which reduce that damage type, it is applied to both dice.

If the spell has multiple targets, this can only be applied on one of them.

At 10th level, you may roll two eight sided dice. At 18th level you may roll two 10 sided dice.

Energizing Ward

Starting at 6th level, you can turn some of the energy of attacks against you to your advantage. When you are struck by an attack doing fire, cold or electrical damage, then you may activate your ward as a reaction. The ward grants you resistance to that damage type for one round (or immunity, if you already have resistance).

If this reduces damage, and you use Dangerous Channelling within one round, you apply both dice as damage to the target, and none to yourself. In this case the extra damage is of the type prevented

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long or short rest.

Puppet Strings

Beginning at 10th level, your Patron can guide your body when you are unable to do so. When you are restrained, stunned or paralyzed, attack rolls against you are not granted advantage by the status. You receive advantage on saves when incapacitated, paralyzed, stunned or uncocious.

Elemental Chains

Starting at 14th level, when you hit a creature with a spell attack, you may bind it with chains of power. It must make a will save against you warlock spell DC or be restrained for one minute or until your concentration is broken. As a bonus action on your turn you can inflict 1d6 force damage to the subject while they’re restrained.

Pact Boon

There’s little mechanical impact on the Pact Boon that comes from the Imprisoned rather than some other patron. However, just as with other pacts, the its appearance and style are impacted by the patron.

Pact of the Chain

The familiar granted by the Pact in the Chain, sometimes called The Whisperer, sometimes serves as a channel for the Imprisoned, giving them a fraction of autonomy to pursue their goals. These familiars may speak and offer helpful – always helpful – advice.

Warlocks who choose the homunculus familiar may choose a different appearance – a colorful, segmented worm. This uses identical stats to the homunculus, but flight speed is replaces with 20′ burrowing speed.

Pact of the Blade

The blade often reflects something of the patron’s nature, but in some cases may more explicitly reflect some nature of its captivity. Blades with a lock or key motif, or even the suggestions of a key’s shape in its blade, are not uncommon.

Pact of the Tome

The book of shadows gifted by the Imprisoned often includes some number of (sometimes changing) maps which the Imprisoned, regretfully, cannot speak to directly.

For the DM

The appearance and nature of the Imprisoned is incredibly varied. Ancient archmages, bound deva’s, dragons of colors or metals which no longer exist – all these things are possible. You and the player may want to talk a little bit about the appearance and demeanor of the imprisoned.

One guideline to this end is that the Imprisoned will unceasingly present themselves as helpful. As an ally. Someone looking out for the character. It’s even possible this is true, but there is reason to be wary. This is a powerful, frustrated being, and the Warlock is the thread it is grasping at in hopes of freedom. Even if they have ulterior motives, they aren’t going to risk alienating the Warlock and losing their chance.

Any Imprisoned will describe their imprisonment as wrong, and those who did it as villains. This is just to be expected, and again may even be true. Or even if untrue, they may sincerely believe it.

This does lead to one kind of important warning about this kind of patron – depending on the circumstance, they may be very manipulative. Specifically, they are incentivized to create a relationship where the warlock is dependent on them, which may lead to a lot of tactics, like gaslighting, which players may not be comfortable with.

If this warning seems odd (after all, playing a warlock of Cthulhu, or Moloch the slaughterer is par for course), please consider – this is not about squeamishness around evil, but rather about things that people encounter in their lives. Great old ones and fiendish monsters are safely in the realm of fiction, but emotional manipulation and harm are things that people have to deal with in their lives. ‘

So, with that in mind, make sure everyone’s clear about how this will play. If the expectation is that the GM will be manipulative in play, then make sure people explicitly buy in. Alternately, if everyone knows out of character that this is manipulation, and the decision to be manipulated is to be a character action, that’s fine too. Just be clear.

Other Notes

I’m not totally happy with Elemental Chains, so I’m going to noodle on that a bit. Obviously, need to test this out a bit, so consider this a work in progress – feedback welcome. I keep being tempted to do an entirely warlock centered 5e book at some point, because Warlocks are just that much fun.

It’s All In The Cards

Apologies for the repost. I originally posted this right after the game, but then we lost it in the server migration. I meant to repost immediately, but then I started actually writing up the rules for this and was going to release both, but those are taking a bit longer than planned, so rather than keep waiting, I’m just reposting this now and will get to the rest of it later.

Needed to run a game for an interesting mix of folks today, and for a variety of reasons I decided to dust off some Amber-derived ideas I’ve had and take them for a spin. Final result was, while not flawless, REALLY interesting, and I certainly had fun. It was also deeply arts & crafts heavy, so it might be of interest to some.

So, we started from a blank slate at the table, and I introduced Proteus. Proteus is, as the name suggests, a shapeshifter, and they are very old and very powerful. They have a tower at the center of several cities in several worlds, and this is their place of power. Proteus also has a number of children, each of which is a power in their own right. They are…

So, at this point I had 7 cards with names on them (Meredith, Finn, Indigo, Keller, Sparrow, Cassia, and Bowie), and I dealt out the top 6 in a circle, setting aside the 7th.

For the next prompt, I pulled out another 7 card deck and said “Let’s flesh them out a bit” and I handed the player to my left a card. Now, this deck was 7 archetypes (The Prince, The Warrior, The Lost, The Wanderer, The Scholar, The Seer, & The Hunter) and I asked players to associate each one with a name, and again I set aside the 7th card.
We repeated this with the next deck of 7 “domains” (more or less arenas of power or similar) – Warden of the Tower, Keeper of the Flame, The Watcher, Nature’s Hand, The Shaper, Walker of Secret Ways, Guardian of the Void, once again letting players assign them. This is where it started getting interesting, since there was some interest in pairings making sense or seeming at odds. When we were done, we had:

  • Finn, The Warrior and Walker of Secret Ways
  • Meredith, The Lost and Keeper of the Flame
  • Sparrow, the Wanderer and Guardian of the Void
  • Indigo, the Hunter and Nature’s Hand
  • Keller, The Scholar and Watcher
  • Cassia, The Seer and Warden of the Tower

(And I had privately set aside Bowie, The Prince and Shaper as a potential future NPC)

So, this was a solid start. I had icons associated with the roles and domains, and at this point we had the skeleton of a setting, so I unpacked a little bit more, and explained that these characters we had just created were the parents of the characters we would play. These characters would be slightly superhuman, heel quickly and be able to travel through dimensions due to the blood of Proteus. They had also been favored by Proteus sufficiently to have lodgings in the tower, which effectively has many floors of well staffed hotel rooms (Proteus has odd ideas about family). As we discussed this, I threw out questions about setting elements, like the cities surrounding the tower, as well as interesting things to be found in the tower. Unsurprisingly, the player contributions did great things to flesh out the setting.

So, at this point we had enough foundation to start diving into actually making characters, so we started with parents and names. I had a list of names for each of the elders, and when players picked a parent, they were urged to pick a name from the list. They had the option not to (representing their name coming from their other parent or some other source) but no one took that option, so we ended up with:

  • Lucas, son of Finn
  • Kaspar, son of Indigo
  • Doris, daughter of Meredith
  • Edda, daughter of Meredith

With another quick round of dice, we used some of the other names to come up with NPC siblings, alive and dead. And now the real show began.

So, for a bit of context, I was using a simple four stat system (Might, Wits, Grace & Resolve), so for each elder I put out 5 cards – one labeled by the secret of their domain and four of them had the name of a stat on them. The stats were not evenly distributed – Finn, the Warrior has three Mights and one Resolve, for example, while Keller, the Scholar, had two Wits, one Grace and one Resolve. I’d set these distributions up in advance based on the roles, and because one role was missing, the distribution was slightly asymmetric. I also added two extra cards, once for Proteus themself and one labeled “Forbidden Secrets”.

I also gave each player a sheet with the list of elders and a few blank spots, and two tracks for the relationship, one which measured support, one which measured respect.

The mechanical part of this was very straightforward – the players went around picking up these cards. If they picked up a stat card, they got a point in that stat. If they picked up a secret, they got some sort of power, trick or item. In each case their relationship with whichever elder’s card it was, and they got a “talent”, which was effectively a skill keyword.

Where the rubber hit the road was that when a card was pulled, that was a prompt for a question (often a series of questions) about that elder, the character and what the story was behind this. When possible (especially with secrets), the player was offered a choice – ideally one which was pointed at other players at the table. Exactly how this played out could impact how the elder relationships would shake out, and it would be used to select the talent for that round.

Secret cards were put back after they were used (Largely because I hadn’t printed multiples), but the stats got used up as we went. This had a very fun effect of forcing players to develop relationships with Elders they normally would not have picked, and since the Elders had gotten steadily fleshed out as we went, these choices felt toothy.
For example, Kaspar’s first draw was to learn Indigo’s secret (Hand of Nature). I asked how old Kaspar was when Indigo took him on his first hunt, and Kaspar’s player’s answer was “Three!”. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity, so as it turns out Kaspar spent ages 3-5 as a hound in Indigo’s pack. Next round, he picked up one of Indigo’s Resolve card, and the story was even less kind. While Kaspar’s player was enjoying it, everyone else at the table pretty much concluded that they did not want to learn anything from Indigo if they could avoid it.

The other two cards were a bit wild cards. The Proteus card called for a die roll which would provide a random boon, though the character also got to spend time doing something useful for Proteus. Only one character went that route and ended up getting turned into a knife and being used to sacrifice a unicorn, so there’s that.

The Forbidden Secrets deck had a set of cards for other powers and groups in the multiverse, and drawing that meant that I drew one of those and offered them something delicious but terrible. One player immediately drew that, got a fun item out of it, and then discovered she was in a horrible position as a result, and was gun shy after that. However, the deck still showed up occasionally when I needed inspiration for an outside force. A few of the factions on that deck ended up getting added to the blank spots in the relationship sheets, usually as enemies.

So, there were 8 rounds of this, and it was pretty marvelous. As often happens in this sort of thing, players ended up with characters that were not quite what they expected them to be at the outset, but in ways the players really ended up enjoying. The downside of this is that we spent long enough on charges that we did not actually get to start play. However, the players are conspiring to play on Discord or similar, so I take it as a good sign.

All in all, definitely a good experiment. A few takeaways:

  • 8 rounds was probably too many. Went a bit slow.
  • About halfway through I switched from players drawing one at a time to everyone drawing at once, then doing resolution. It sped things up and made it easier to thread these things together.
  • I had intended to pre-load the questions to the draws, but ran out of time, so I was improvising them. Worked out ok, but prepared questions would have sped things up.
  • The relationship sliders were really satisfying, but I think I should have leaned on them a little more. Most of the changes were positive, which doesn’t quite align with the tone I imagine – should have had a little more tension in that space.
  • I ended up improvising some of the interactions between the secrets. As designed, they were effectively three tier powers, but I hadn’t really considered how they might synergize.
  • The deck of threats was a last minute addition, but may have been my single favorite deck. Partly because it was the wildest, but also because what drove me to create it was remembering that putting a bunch of demigods in the middle of reality is only interesting if you can give them something to push against.
  • I did not have enough explicit lateral connection and questioning. Added plenty will well-made questions, but if I add another deck, it will be for player to player relations.

So, successful test. The Proteus setting is one I’m absolutely going to use again – it’s my current personal Amber alternative. This particular variation on card-driven chargen – probably the most complicated I’ve tried so far – still holds up.

System Engagement

Decisions, Decisions

Buckle up. This is a weird one.

One thing that makes it hard to talk about “play” as a unified thing is that it’s not a unified thing. There are a host of different activities that fall under the umbrella, and some of them are radically different enough to defy generalization. One of these vectors is the level of engagement with the system.

Ok, roll with me a moment: the biggest difference between a game and a story is uncertainy. Excepting very edge cases, the story might have uncertainty within its fiction, but that’s a sham – it will be the same story each time you read it. On the other hand, a game can be expected to be different each time it’s played. If it’s not, then it’s a script, not a game.

Now, given that, where does this uncertainty come from? The obvious sources seem to be “dice” and “other people”, and that’s true enough, but I might go a step further and say that the difference is found in decisions, which are made either by people (who are highly variable) or by systems (which include an element of randomness to introduce variability). This is a very simple endpoint that glosses over the many, many ways that variability can be introduced, used and managed, but the heart of it is decisions.

However, a game is not just a collection of decisions. There is something that makes those decisions (individually or collectively) enjoyable to a player, otherwise they would not be playing.

There’s no one good answer to this. I could say something like “engagement”, “investment” or “stakes”, but that would just be a tautology – for players to care about decisions they need to care about decisions. Not super helpful in and of itself. From a certain perspective, one might even argue that a primary act of play is the creation of that investment in decision.

But knowing that there is something is valuable, since it then lets you look at specific games and specific people and ask why they care about that decision, and it’s often possible to find that out. There are a host of well known motivations – Challenge, fiero, empathy, drama – stuff like that, and there are ways to drive towards those if you have reason to think they’re the desired values.

Ok, so given all that, we have three interesting data points:

1) Games are made of uncertainty resolved by decisions.

2) Those decisions can be implemented in many ways

3) Those decisions can be valued in many ways.

Now, why is this interesting? Because if we accept the premise that making decisions is the defining activity of the game (and it’s cool if you don’t, but I’ll be riding this train for a bit) then it shows us where the nails that connect system to play are (or should be). That is: your play is full of decisions, how does you game’s design interact with that?

If that seems abstract, then consider the slightly more concrete question of “What decisions are being made in play without the game system, and is that gap a problem?” Consider the classic example of “we played all night and never touched the dice once!” This is one of those odd contradictions of game design because the play experience was great, but clearly there is some sort of disconnect because (implicitly) this was an experience the rules as written couldn’t provide. There’s an instinct to consider this as a flag for a bad design, but that seems excessive. It might indicate a mismatch – they might be trying to drive a hammer with with a screwdriver – but that is a different sort of problem.

But where this gets useful is that during that “no dice” session, decisions were still being made. They were just being made by a human rather than a system. This has risks, but in this case it turned out pretty well, and the question becomes whether there’s anything we can learn to replicate the success (and, ideally, fold those learnings into the system in order to automate it).

This is fine as far as it goes, but what’s important to note is that the reality is that while the dice may not have been engaged, this does not mean that the system was not. This is because while the system may offer the means of making decisions, it is also the container for many of the things which influence decisions.

Again, that’s pretty abstract, so let me make it concrete. If you are playing a very skilled thief and you come to a locked door, this is a moment of uncertainty – will you be able to get past the door? (The game may ask a different question, but let’s stick with this for now). The default system almost certainly has some means whereby I could roll some dice, compare it to something, and get a yes or no answers. That is one way to make the decision. Alternately, the GM may simply think “You are a very skilled thief, of course you can pick it, you succeed and move onto the more interesting thing.” This is also a way to make a decision.

But wait, you might think: Have we just stripped the situation of uncertainty? If nothing else, we have stripped it of uncertainty for the GM.

This is, I think, a really interesting philosophical question with curious implications. If you have a sense that uncertainty needs to be fair or evenly distributed in some way then having unevenly distributed uncertainty is a no go. If you shrug and note that it’s still uncertain for the players, then it’s no big deal. But this is such an essential difference that it has really profound impact in design and play.

However, it’s also a bit of a sidebar. The interesting thing in the thief example is that the system contains the information that your character is an accomplished thief in some way. It might be a high skill rank or many levels or whatever, but something in the game reflects and communicates that idea. That informed the GMs decision – should the fighter have come to the same decision, they would not have gotten a pass – so the system is still engaged, even if it’s not engaged in the ‘right’ way.

The result of this long, twisty route for me is to really look at this idea of there being different ways to engage the system in play and consider it as a feature rather than a bug. The premise of this would be that just as there are different kinds of investment and different kinds of decisions, it may be desirable that there be different means of engagement for the system.

This is hardly an unprecedented idea. Turn it a little bit in one direction and it’s the same argument for games having different subsystems for different types of action. But most existing examples proceed on a single axis: granularity. That is, they may have a simple procedure for doing one thing, but a more complicated one for doing something more specific. For example, a game might have a general resolution mechanic for most action, but a more detailed system for combat.

But the possibility which intrigues me is that this could be done on drastically different axes. Go back to that list of things that invest people in decisions and you could have different tools for engagement that support different modes with the expectation that they could change up on the fly.

(As an aside, I think the ability to implicitly do this is one of the appealing elements of very light, very interpretive games. 3d6 in Risus is a very concrete things, but the number of ways to use and interpret it is vast. This is harder as the system picks up more parts).

This is all crazily abstract, so let me make it a bit more concrete with a Fate Hack.

When engaging with Fate in a normal way, these are the things that aspects do at my table:

  • At a cost, it might grant a bonus to a roll
  • At a cost, it might be able to turn an opportunity into a resource or other outcome
  • At a cost, it might remove an impediment
  • At no cost, it might create or impede an opportunity
  • For a payment, it might impose a penalty
  • For a payment, it might remove an opportunity
  • For a payment, it might become an impediment

In this case, “In a normal way” generally means “Declare an action, move around some fate points, roll some dice”, which is to say, directly engaging the system.

However, let’s say I want to capture that “we never touched the dice” feeling in a Fate game. I would simply narrate events, answer questions, and play NPCs until we come to a point of uncertainty. In many situations, I will look at it, look at the skills and aspects in play, and resolve the uncertainty with that information. I would probably also be mindful of how “pushing” an aspect might change the outcome, and use those possibilities as options for fate point spends to nudge things along. I’d need to come up with a good rule of thumb to handle situations where no “right” answer suggests itself, but that can be as simple as “Say yes or ask a question”.

I am, at this point, playing a RADICALLY different game than an “engaged” game of Fate. And yet, in practice, I can move pretty seamlessly between these two modes because they both draw on similar source material (the character sheet), they differ only in how the decisions are being made.

Now, I think this is a good thing. Tastes vary, but this is my jam. However, the question it now leaves me asking myself is how to write the game in such a way that this is the intent, not just a happy outcome. I don’t have an answer for that yet, but I feel like this rambling has brought me closer.

The Urban Body

This metaphor stops being useful as you start getting into the details, but when you first start thinking about a fictional city, it is worth thinking about it as a person to remind you to consider the things that make it go.

Like a person, a city has:

  • A brain
  • A Heart
  • A Stomach
  • Muscles
  • An Immune System
  • A Nervous System
  • Bones
  • Blood
  • Digestive System
  • Naughty Bits
  • Gut Flora

The list isn’t comprehensive, but it doesn’t ned to be. It’s just a prompt to remind the creator to think about each of these things, and uses something familiar to provide touchpoints on what to consider. Let’s run through them quickly.

Brains – Who’s in charge? Who runs the city? If something intentionally changes in the city, who makes that decision? This is often the first place the metaphor breaks down, because there are often multiple answers. That’s fine! The goal is not to create a city that adheres to the model, the goal is to just use the model to ask the questions!

A Heart – What keeps this city alive? Does it have a purpose? Is it healthy? In decline? This may be a littler ephemeral, but it’s important because it’s really the core idea of the city.

A Stomach – How does the city eat and drink? It probably can’t produce its own food, and water has to come from somewhere, so where is it coming from? How does it get in? What’s interesting about it? What’s at risk?

Muscles – How does work get done in the city? What sort of industry is there? How do things happen?

An Immune System – What keeps the city from changing? What protects it? Police? Soldiers? Strong neighborhood bonds?

A Nervous System – How does the city communicate? Within itself? With the world outside? How do people find out what’s going on?

Bones – What was this place before it was a city? How has the landscape shaped the city, and how can you still see it today? Why THIS location, not somewhere else?

Blood – How do things circulate? How does transportation work? How are the roads? The waterways? How do people and goods get around?

Digestive System – If the stomach is input, this is…output. Where does the waste go? How much lingers? Are their sewers? What keeps the streets clean?

Naughty Bits – With apologies, what is the role of sex in the cities? What are the mores? What are the roles? How is the oldest profession treated?

Gut Flora – Ok, this is a little esoteric, but useful – who lives in the city and is not necessarily part of it, but at the same time is tightly tied to it? What are the critical symbiotic relationships of the city? Gangs, ethnic neighborhoods, secret conspiracies, religious congregations and more all exist within cities, but it’s worth thinking about which ones are critical to the city.