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.


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. ↩︎

The Benefits of Caring

Quick thought over coffee.

Almost every mechanical problem becomes easy to solve if you know what a player cares about, because once the player cares you have the tools to offer meaningful choices with real costs.

Unfortunately, as useful as that information would be at design time, it isn’t. It comes up at the table. This is one of those reasons I tend to rate GMing over design in the priority stack, but that’s a whole other thing.

So the designer has two options: first, she may assume the player has only self interest and design mechanics that put consequences into the character. This is pretty shallow, and a way to hack it involves putting more things onto the character sheet. It’s not a bad hack, but it’s got some awkward edges to it, and when it breaks it is not graceful.

The other option is to presume that players are invested in something the designer values and just sort of hope the game finds the audience for which that is true. It may well do so, since that design decision is a flag for those players, so it may be fruitfully self fulfilling.

(An alternate version of this is to make it the player’s problem to care, and just throw up your hands if they don’t. That has an appeal, but is not quite my jam,)

Looking at those two-and-a-half options, I admit I’m wondering if there’s a third. So much of the judgement about care needs to happen at a personal level, I wonder if there are explicit tools to offer the GM to work with this. Some of the “put it on the sheet” mechanics feel like they might be usable in this fashion, but it’s going to take some thought.

Heisting Dice

Wednesday night is, when possible, boardgame night at our house. It’s a high point of the week, and while we have a stable of favorites that we like to rotate through, it’s also an opportunity to try out new games.

One of thise week’s new games was a Pax Unplugged acquisition; Dice Heist from AEG (who have been putting out some really fun stuff lately). I picked this up because it was small and cheap, promised a quick playtime, and was a theme I dig. It paid off on all fronts.

Gameplay is simple. You have a single black d6 representing your thief, a pool of white d6s representing potential crewmembers, a deck of carts with various pieces of art on them, and 4 museums with different security ratings (2-5). Every turn a card is revealed and put “on display” in a museum. On your turn, you either recruit crew (which is to say, grab a white d6), or attempt to rob the museum. To rob a museum you roll your thief die and any number of your recruited dice and hope your best die is better than the security rating. If so, take all the cards at that location, and return your crew to the pool. If not, keep your crew and your turn is over. Game is over when everything is stolen, and there’s a scoring mechanic on all the stuff you’ve stolen which is definitely a scoring mechanic.

This is fairly familiar press your luck play, but it goes quickly and smoothly enough that that would be fine, but actual play proved more nuanced than I expected. I had kind of expected the cadence to be “build up a crew, then use them once it’s worthwhile” but three things messed with that (in a good way). First, with no crew but your thief, you have a 2/3rd chance of successfully robbing the least secure museum, and a 50% chance of robbing the second. Second, the only penalty for failure is the wasted turn. These things combined to make players more willing to take a risk because the benefit of gaining another crew member had to be weighted agains the fact that somebody would probably succeed before the turn came around.

Third, because you could choose how much crew you used, crew acquisition was a bit more calculated. Often, the choice to grab crew was made because the rewards weren’t tempting enough to try for, but the crew would then be stockpiled for future rather than immediate use. It made the decision more interesting than a simple rubric, and that delighted me.

The upshot was that play was just fast and fun. It did not reward the conservatism that sometimes turns into a game of stockpile chicken, but it still rewarded thinking ahead and sometimes passing up immediate reward for future gains. I’m not going to say it was super deep, but it’s definitely fun. The game hits all the necessary notes (fast, simple, fun, quick) that earn it a place in my go bag of games.

I also am filing it away for minigame purposes. The core mechanic is simple, but complimentary to games like Blades in the Dark or Don’t Rest Your Head, and I may yet find a way to squeeze it into downtime or otherwise jazz up a game with it, especially because it would not be hard to replicate the game with a deck of playing cards and a stack of D6s.

When the Campaign is the Game

One thing that Blades in the Dark has really made me think about is fruitfully constraining the setting of a game.  The Blades setting is actually pretty big and I could think of a LOT of games I could fit within it (up to an including Exalted) but as written it ignores all of those options in favor of a very specific focus within a very specific setting.

The focus is not as small as it could be.  The variety of crew types and the size of the city both leave a lot of flexibility, but it’s still a fairly narrow slice, especially when compared to most setting driven RPGs. 

Now, I admit, this is counter to my instincts. I’m a kitchen sink guy.  I want to offer readers as many tools and options as possible, and that can be great for certain things, but it definitely comes at the cost of focus. If I do zoom in, it’s usually in an attempt at brevity, but it’s worth noting that Blades is not a concise book.  I kind of want to deliberately subvert my own instincts and see what designing at a verbose but tight zoom would produce.

My current thinking is that its skeleton would need to be something akin to a certain style of published adventure, specifically a certain style of campaign book which evolves a particular location.  I mean, I guess I could make a game that is explicitly designed to do the Slave Lords arc, but i genuinely don’t see how that would work very well, since it’s just a series of dungeons and dick moves. But more specifically I’m thinking about things like Pool of Radiance or Ruins of Intrigue, where there’s a specific place to play in, with content that unlocks over time.   I could very easily see narrowing a game down and saying “Here are the rules for doing this well.  There is more in the world, and maybe there are other conversations about that, but right now? We’re doing just this thing”. 

So now I’m thinking about other adventures that might work for this.  I mean, there’s probably a whole game to be distilled out of Keep on the Borderlands, but that game might be called “Basic Dungeons and Dragons”.  Dragon Heist is awesome, but I already have Blades and Dusk City Outlaws, so I’m kind of covered there. 

Going to have to go through the bookshelf for ideas, so with that in mind, suggestions are welcome.  Bear in mind, it doesn’t really matter if they’re good adventures (The Pool of Radiance module is…not) but rather that they’re structured in a way that seems like it could contain a whole game. 

What Skills Provide

Spirit of the Century had 3 different chapters on skills – one on what skills did, one on how you, as a player, could be awesome with that skill, and one on how you as a GM could make that skill awesome in play.  To this day, while I regret how much bulk it added to the book, it’s a model I love because it speaks right to the *story* your skills tell about your game.

Skills are weird in RPGs.  We like to think of skills as “things characters can do”, and we play around with that some. For example, I love the five corner model where a skill is:

  • Do the thing
  • Know about the thing
  • Contact people related to the thing
  • Perceive things that relate to the thing
  •  Perform support actions for the skill

So, the “guns” skill would allow you to Shoot, be knowledgeable about firearms, contact arms dealers, spot a sniper and repair your gun. 

Now, this is a cinematic model (the roots of it are from Feng Shui, where skills cover doing, knowing and contacting) that assumes broadly capable characters, and it interacts interestingly with the overall skill list.  That is, if you have a model like this, what do engineering or perception skills provide?  Note, this is not the same thing as “You should not HAVE engineering or perception skills”, but rather a challenge to make sure those skill are interesting.

In contrast, Cortex (like, pre-prime cortex, specifically thinking the BSG version) did a thing I’ve seen in a few games where it had a short-to-medium list of general skills with the idea that more specific skills were specialties on that skill.  For example, you could buy the “guns” skill at d4 or d6, and that covered all gun skills. But if you wanted to get any better, you bought individual skills up from there (so you might buy pistols at d8 or sniper rifles at d10).  I disliked the specific implementation (because cortex granularity is such that the cap ad d6 felt punitive) but I liked it a lot conceptually.  Done right, it allows for everyone to do stuff, but gives specialists opportunities to differentiate and shine.  

The thing is, where it gets weird is in making differentiation and capability proceed in lockstep.  In this model.  There is no real difference between being good at pistols and bring good at rifles at this point of granularity.  Of course, this can be solved with another layer of complexity.  If you have feats or stunts or something like that. then you can use skill level as a gate on buying them.  To buy the quickdraw stunt, you must have pistols D8 – easy peasy!

And yet…

In practice, this always seems like the path to overcomplicated exercises in bookkeeping (form this, most stunt trees are born).  That’s an annoyance, but over time I’ve come to realize that it can also be kind of fun-destructive, depending on expectations.  In almost every stunt tree system I’ve found, there are hidden patterns of things you actually need in order to be cool. Their exact shape varies – they might be thematic groupings or they might be some mechanical threshold at which point things click.  A very common example of this in various editions of D&D is the collection of hoops you had to go through to emulate a particular fighting style (like fencing, or two weapon fighting) because god forbid you just *start* with a rapier (newer editions are better about this, but I still have 3e flashbacks on this topic).

A further complication on this is that because you end up needing to fit the model of modular bits, you frequently invite balance problems. To continue the D&D model, two weapon fighting was a stylistic goal for some, but because the combination of rules around it were frequently broken, it also became a mechanical goal.

So adding a layer of other elements like stunts is a solution, but it’s one with some concerns.  Enough concerns that it raises the question of whether we can solve these problems within our skill design.

On the surface, it seems obvious, but digging into it reveals something a little bit painful about how we use skills in most RPG design.  That is, skills end up providing between one and three of the following: 

  1. Capability (that is, the ability to do the thing)
  2. Differentiation (that is, a reason why this skill is different than some other skill)
  3. Permission (that is, an assertion that the character *can* do the thing)

it is rare for a design to openly acknowledge this, but at the same time you can see it everywhere.  Whatever skill allows brain surgery has an implicit permission element (assuming the game does not permit everyone to try their hand at brain surgery).  Freeform skill system constantly struggle with differentiation. But for all that, we still go about designing skills like they are only about capability, so all it needs is a rating. 

Some games have addressed this by forgoing skills entirely (but that introduces its own challenges) and other games have tried different approaches to varying degrees of success.  i can’t point at one thing that I think is the right answer here, but the question is rattling around in my head for the moment. 

Running Jobs in Blades in the Dark

Bigass diagram of nodes. Sorry, it's really ahed to describe. :(

When I first started running Blades in the Dark, I was enamored by the ease of preparation. Very little player planning, dice driven action snowballs, just lots of great stuff.

But by the time I ran my third session, I was starting to notice something. As a GM, there was starting to be a bit of same-ness to the jobs, specifically the jobs of the same type.

That is, it was very easy to spontaneously improvise the first few stealthy infiltrations, but after a while it started to feel a little bit forced. There was a temptation to skip to the end, and a risk of “ok, now for ANOTHER sneak roll”, and I wanted to steer clear of that. Specifically, when I caught myself narrating a series of rooms, I felt like I had slipped a gear.

I’m sure there are other solutions, but for me it meant a bit more planning. Not a LOT more planning – I have no desire to slow down the game, nor to thrust canned encounters on my crew – but enough to force myself out of comfortable patterns and make me think about what makes this job different than other jobs.

For this, I turn to my old friend, the node map.1 I start from the two points I have: The point of entry and the score. The players provide me the essentials of both of these, so I just need to layer on top of it. For the point of entry, I need to provide a little bit of context: What kind of place is being entered and what’s the outside like? I don’t need a lot of detail, but I need enough that I am ready for any result on the engagement roll. Practically, this means I need to think of something that can go poorly and something that can go well, as well as the middle of the road result2.

I also think about the payoff. If I were to just skip past all the infiltration and get to the point where they’re cracking the safe or getting the idol off the mantle, what does that scene look like. This is usually the easiest creative exercise, and it’s mostly a matter of coming up with a threat or challenge to drive the scene. I apply similar thinking to the engagement roll, only reversed – how does the framing differ if things are going poorly or very well? Will there be extra guards? Will the princess be in another castle? Will the macguffin be left lying in plain site since no one even suspects trouble?

So, now I’ve got two nodes, but I explicitly don’t connect them yet. Also, there’s an instinct to think that I am now looking at the beginning and end of a sequence, but resist that. It might be true, but I also might be looking at the beginning and middle of a sequence, or even just the first two steps.

So, rather than build a map, now is the time to think of a few more nodes. My target number is three, but you do you.

I don’t particularly restrict what nodes are. They might be rooms, they might be NPCs, they might be events or they might be something else. Practically, they just need to be something that could drive a scene, and the details flow from that need.

Coming up with nodes is a creative exercise, which runs the risk of bogging things down, so my process is to run through a quick checklist and see what it shakes loose. My personal checklist is:

  • Is there a visual for a scene that I can see in my head that I want to capture?3
  • Which crewmember is least well suited to this job? Can I engage them? What can I do to balance spotlight?
  • Does anyone have outstanding trouble (NPCs in particular) that I could use bring in?
  • Did the final payoff node suggest to me any logical barriers, gates or thresholds?
  • What would play to the crew’s strength to reinforce their awesome?
  • What would reveal the crew’s weakness and force them to scramble?
  • What is going to happen if the shit hits the fan?

Running through that is usually enough for me to shake loose a trio or more ideas (though if I’m being honest, I often shoot for four ideas, since the “when the shit hits the fan” one is necessary in design but optional in play). I don’t want to throw too much detail at these things, but I like to note the risks and opportunities in each node, and that tends to give me enough to roll with (though it does run the risk of not having much “middle”).

So, I quickly add those three nodes to my notes. I still haven’t drawn any connections between them, but that is the next step. Ideally, I don’t need to connect any of them (more on that in a second), but if it seems like two of them should be connected by story logic (if, for example, the core needs to pass through the guardhouse to get to the treasure room) then this is when I connect them. Beyond those, I keep want to keep the connections loose, so that these elements can be brought to bear in alignment with the events of play4.

At this point I’m ready to go. I have a set of tableaux to be played through, and it’s just a matter of connecting them according to player actions. However, if I have a little more time, I like to add one more layer in the form of transitions.

So, if I actually drew this out as a map, I would be treating each connecting line as a transition, and I’d attach something to it (generally either some sort of choice or a bit of mechanical engagement, like a roll). Story wise, this translates into simple things that don’t merit a whole scene, like a locked door, a branching path, or a guard to be snuck past with no particular fanfare. Since I’m not mapping out connections, I don’t worry too much about choices (since they’ll shake out organically) but I do want to add a little bit of mechanical teeth to the transition between nodes – so how do I do that without explicit connections?5

The trick is that I add attachment points to the nodes, so that if I have an idea what entry (or sometimes exit) from a node should entail, and when it comes time to connect to that node, I connect to the attachment point and use that to inform the transition. It’s not perfect – sometimes circumstances will make the attachment points moot, but they’re lightweight enough (like, a bullet of fiction and a suggestion for outcomes) that it’s no great loss.

Finally, as I’m ready to go, I treat this diagram as a starting point, not a source of truth. As things come up in play or ideas come to me, I may add new nodes, change or update things, and generally keep it coherent and dynamic.6 But it means that with a single sheet of paper7 I have all the details needed to keep a job feeling fresh, with extra space for any clocks that may come up.

  1. While I am not strictly reframing jobs as 5 room dungeons, that’s not too far off from what I do. ↩︎
  2. This is not a super nuanced Way to run engagement rolls, but I am ok with it. ↩︎
  3. Confession: That usually means “Was there a cool bit in Dishonored or some other game that I want to copy?” ↩︎
  4. This is, I should cop, illusionist as hell. If you find that objectionable, then you should do all the connections now, and then run your crew through it. It’ll work fine. ↩︎
  5. Technique tip: Transitions that have rolls do one of two things. Either they force a choice (if you can get past this door, you go through to the nest node. If not, then you need to go to a different node to go around) or they function like mini-engagement rolls to frame the next node. They can do other things too, but the important thing is that the results of the roll are expressed in the subsequent node because it’s more interesting than the transition. If the transition is interesting enough to merit more than that, it should probably be a node.

    Bonus Tip: This also 100% works for D&D. ↩︎
  6. Again, illusionist as hell. Feel free to plan this stuff out if you want. ↩︎
  7. Or, more often, an iPad. The ability to reposition things electronically is kind of awesome. ↩︎