It’s Not My Fault (But It Might Be Yours)

inmfFred surprised me with the good news today! The previously mentioned It’s Not My Fault deck is now for sale on Drivethrucards! Whole thing will set you back nine bucks plus shipping (and maybe a box).  If you’re like me and want to add things to your order to justify shipping, I definitely recommend getting some turn tracking cards or anything by Daniel Solis or Brooklyn Indie Games!

Respectful Failure

Stick-Figures-Slips-Trips-FallsThis is another one of those ideas that I make no claim to novelty of, but i want to talk about because it’s pretty important. Game design has been slowly getting its hands around the role of failure in play. It’s a big and complicated topic (that can look surprisingly simple) with many different answers, but a lot of good conclusions have been reached, at least intellectually.

Now, first, it’s important to note that there is a mode of play where failure is supposed to be educational, presuming you survive it. It is a tool of exploration, and a necessary component of trial and error. If you miss a clue, then you might not solve the mystery, and the consequences will roll forth from that, so maybe you better hustle to find another solution. RPGs are pretty good at this type of failure, and it has its own body of technique which I’m not speaking to today, except to say that if this is what you’re looking to do, then totally don’t worry about the rest of it.

Another approach is based on the idea that failure should not stop play, and arguably should not stop fun. Failure, in whatever its form, should keep the game moving – failing forward, as it were. This idea is most clearly crystallized in Gumshoe, where investigation skills cannot fail, so long as there’s something to look for, because having a game come to a dead stop because of a failed roll is pretty dull. This same thinking can be applied to rolled failures – the character may still fail, but the plot will unfold in such a way that play will keep moving forward.

I am, I admit, a little skeptical of this approach. I heartily applaud the sentiment, and there are definitely situations where it’s applicable, but it shows some cracks in practice. It provides a lot of opportunity to showcase how many ways a GM can say “no” without actually saying “no” for one thing – judging applicability of the situation or requirements produce the same result as a no, but with a bit more absolution.

Also, practically, a lot of games with very generous theories of failure have very concrete mechanical measures of failure. Even if the game is going to be very generous about what failing a Socialize check might mean, odds are good the attack and defense rolls are pretty darn explicit in their outcomes.

This is not necessarily bad, but it’s worth being cognizant of.

The problem, I think, is one of mindfulness. GMs are busy, and when presented with a specific failure, they have incentive to take the simplest path through, and that is often either a flat no or a mechanical resolution. This is just human nature. But if you can get a GM to stop for a second and think “how can I make this result interesting?”, i think that almost every GM is capable of providing a satisfying answer.

That is to say, the problem is not one of creativity, it is a challenge of helping the GM stop and think. This is the real genius of the Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) 7–9 result – its specifics may be good or bad on a particular move, but it does not allow the GM to fall into a rut – she has to stop and think. And once you’ve gotten the GM to think, good things happen.[1]

Other rubrics can help. “Failure should move the plot along” can force the GM to think, but it’s a little bit plot-dependent. When it works, it can really keep things moving, but it definitely relies on a strong idea of what the plot is. I usually don’t, so that only helps so much.

My preferred approach is fairly predictable – as usual, I look at something plot centric and wonder about making it character centric. With that in mind, I practice something I call Respectful Failure. That is, the failure must respect the capability and concept of the character taking the action.

For example, if the character is a world class sniper, and they blow a roll to hit, then I cannot simply say they miss. That pretty much denies their concept. Instead, I must come up with an explanation for why they missed which is respectful of the character’s competency. That forces me to think, and it gets me a lot of what I love out of 7–9s in PBTA – it complicates the game. Why? Because when characters are very competent, their reasons for failure need to be interesting. To get back to our sniper, if he fails, then it might be because:

  • The shot was lined up but that’s when the counternsiper opened fire
  • Someone else shot the dude first
  • It was a hit, but it was the body double!

And so on.

Note that my priority here is respecting the character, but the result of that is something that moves the action forward. This resembles advancing the plot, but it’s a subtly different beast, because I have no plot to speak of (also, it posits a very fluid gameworld, which is not to everyone’s tastes, and that’s fine – see the original disclaimer.)

Now, this is not necessarily something I will do on every roll, because not every roll is a showcase of the character’s concept. If our sniper tries to pick a lock, and the dice turn against him, I have no problem saying the lock is too well made and that he fails to open it (though I will not create a situation where picking that lock is the only way to keep playing, because I don’t hate my players) because picking a lock is something incidental to his concept. If he were playing a cat burglar, it would be a different matter.

Some games give very clear flags for which rolls deserve respect, and things like very high skill ranks and things like aspects are all useful pointers. But I admit there’s also a bit of reading the table and the situation involved – how much spotlight has that player gotten? How much do they want to have? What is the rest of the table interested in? Can the consequences of this toss the ball to someone else? The answers to questions like that help me adjust my decision making on the fly.

To go back to the lockpicking example, I might interpret a failure as picking the lock but triggering the alarm if the team’s hacker has been sitting on his hands for a while – the failure gives me a chance to toss the hacker the ball and give him a challenge to overcome.

And that’s a key technique there – a failed roll can easily be a success with consequences if you have a high trust table and loosely articulated stakes. If you’re doing strict stake-setting, this would probably be in bad faith. But strict stake setting is slow and boring, so that doesn’t worry me too much. :)

This works in most loose systems, but it has a particular challenge in Fate. We designed Fate pretty generously, enough so that failure is not terribly common, especially within the character’s core concept. As such, it is hard to get the cycle of respectful failure moving at the table with old habits. But I’m wondering if the right answer is to be a bit more of a bastard GM (I am usually too kind) and put more pressure on the fate point economy, enough so that the players feel more obliged to stomach the occasional failure. But that is a topic for future experimentation.



1- For the unfamiliar, a lot of rolls in Apocalypse World and other games using the engine work something like “Roll 2d6 plus a modifier. on a 6 or less, you fail.  On a 10 or more you succeed. On a  7-9 you get a mixed result, like a success with complications or a failure with mitigation” with specific details varying.

Wrestling with FAE

approachRight before Metatopia, I finally got my hands around the element of Fate Accelerated that I kept stumbling over in the approached, and in retrospect, it’s super obvious. The problem, historically, is that it’s super easy to spam your best approach, especially with approaches like “clever” and that generally there’s a disconnect between how the various approaches feel in play. I’ve previously floated Fae 2 as a solution, and it still works, but I’m still digging into the underlying problem.

For those who need to look it up, the approaches are Quick, Clever, Forceful, Flashy, Careful and Sneaky. In an ideal world, they act as adverbs, describing a character’s action, and coloring the outcome, and as such, it doesn’t matter much if a particular approach is used a lot – it just means that action will skew in that particular way, which is fine. The problem is that this only works if all of the approaches are equally applicable, limited only by player creativity.

But they aren’t, because some of these adverbs are also their own verbs, especially when you need to move quickly, sneak, or smash something. That is, certain approaches have implicit actions which are very difficult to decouple from the approach, and that’s a real problem when the character is trying to sneak carefully or quickly.

FAE2 offers one solution to this – let the player choose one approach and the GM pick the other, then add them up – and it works fine, but requires retuning difficulties a little. You could also modify FAE2 so the player simply picks both, and that works fine.

But what we’ve been trying a little is “Choose as many approaches as you want (practically caps at 3)” and roll the lowest. At first blush, this may feel punitive, but remember that FAE difficulties are skewed in such a way that even a +1 is pretty useful. And the tradeoff for the reduced bonus is much greater latitude in capable action – ut is very difficult to describe a character action, however convoluted, that can’t be thrown into the bucket of two or three approaches.

It also makes certain things pop. When a character can apply an unqualified +3, that feels like they’re getting spotlight. When a character is forced to roll a +0, it feels like that really is a shortcoming (without a lot of mechanical pain). It works pretty well.

Now, the counterargument is that we’ve largely been doing this with It’s Not My Fault and the random nature of character creation may make players more forgiving of this. Jury is still out, but we keep experimenting.

I also considered giving each Approach an implicit action, so that fine manipulation was always careful, and social manipulation was always flashy and so on. After some thought, it seemed clear that this was kind of backwards thinking, but it was useful for fleshing out my own thinking about what the Approaches mean. I don’t need a rule saying that flashy is manipulation, but having an understanding of flashy that says it encompasses influence, not just ostentatious display, makes it a little more clear to me when Flashy is appropriate. Clever? Does the action have multiple moving parts? That’s a good flag for clever. Careful? Consider that it encompasses patience and timing, and that’s a lot of action.

Practically, it’s important to get to the point where you can see why each Approach could be awesome. Without that, they seem lumpy and imbalanced, but with that understanding, then it becomes a firehose of action an excitement.

It’s Not My Fault!

Fred and I ran something of a secret playtest at Metatopia. Yes, we had copies of the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game to playtest, and that went swimmingly, but we had packed something else – It’s Not My Fault

There is a particular style of game that I’ve run a number of times for friend where chargen involved drawing cards containing archetypes. Fred took that idea and ran it through a filter of FAE, then combined it with Two Guys with Swords and added a great kickoff mechanism to produce a small deck of cards with which to make an on-the-fly RPG.


The model is very simple. There are 20 cards with archetypes like Barbarian, Swashbuckler or Illusionist on them. They have +1 to three FAE approaches, and a stunt on the back. Each players choose 2, and is dealt a third randomly. The result is a character with three aspects (like Alchemist, Merchant & Sharpshooter), a set of stats and 3 stunts.

The GM then draw from 3 piles: “Where are you” “How did you get here?” and “How’s it about to get worse?” Which might well be “In an arena before a chanting crowd”, “Lost a bet” and “The poison is already in your system”. With that framing, the GM points to a player and says, “Who is to blame?” and the player explains “It’s not my fault, because…” and blames another player. That player repeats the process, and repeats again, until the last player blames the first player. With each successive explanation, the GM is adding an aspect to the table, and the players are getting a sense of their dynamic.

And that’s it. You then start playing.

We ran chargen a few times, just to show the cards, but I also got toe run a session well past my bedtime on Saturday night, and it was just the kind of Lieber-esque madness it was supposed to be. Describing it cannot do it justice, but it should be known that a marriage was not consummated, the bar was burned down, and inthe words of the hanged man, “He’s a dick”.

There were one or two tweaks that still need t0 be made to the decks, but they’re mostly graphical stuff that Fred will fix in no time, plus maybe one or two tweakes , then we’ll probably put these up for sale, and consider future expansions of the line, if only for our own use. It’s not my fault…In Spaaaaace and such.

I also used this as an excuse to try another rule. Rather than giving out fate points, I grabbed 7 othello chips and tossed them onto the table. Any time players would gain a fate point or I would spend one, I flipped a black side to white. Any time the players spent one, I flipped a white to black. If they ever went all black, I would draw another “How’s it about to get worse?” card. If they ever went all white, the player’s once-per-session stunts would reset. It worked very well, though neither end was ever triggered. As expected, the tension was more rewarding than the actual threat. I’ll definitely try that again, though I may fiddle with the “all positive” reward, since it’s hard for the players to get that unless I really push.

The TVGame

So, I finally started watching Person of Interest, which is what got me thinking about this.So, I have an ur-RPG-system in my head that I have referenced occasionally and that I apply to almost every TV show I watch, which is composed of domains and ranks. Let’s call it TVGame for ease of reference, though really it works equally well for most fiction.

Domains are areas of expertise, like fighting or computers. Every show has a different set of domains, since they reflect what the show is about. Something that might be a very broad domain in one show might be sliced finely in another. For example, Academics might be a fine domain in one show, but in something like The Librarians it might get broken out into Math, History, Biology or other fields (since most of the characters are academics of some stripe). Alternately, a lot of stories might offer finer gradations of fighting, to distinguish the sniper and the martial artist. Domains get very fiddly in the specific (and I could write several posts about them), but the idea is straightforward enough.

Ranks are a measure of how good the character is in the domain, broken down as follows:

Terrible – The character is not merely unskilled, they are actively terrible at this. Should they try to engage in this activity, it will almost certainly go horribly wrong in a manner suiting the tone of the show. Usually used for comic relief or to reflect full on barriers, like Professor X’s athletics.

Unskilled – The character has no particular training or aptitude in this field, but neither are they particularly bad. In most circumstances, they are unexceptional. A good example is driving – most people just drive without trouble, but are not actually trained drivers.

Capable – The character is good at this, usually good enough to be a professional. The majority of characters in any show are Capable at one or two things, and Unskilled at everthing else (Heroes and villains being the exceptions). Examples include cops, gangsters, teachers and really anyone.

Exceptional (or, as I say in conversation, Badass) – The character is super awesome at this particular thing. They’re the super hacker, the special forces assassin, the billionaire and so on. The protagonists (and villains) are probably exceptional at one or more things.

Transcendent – Like Exceptional, but more so. As with Terrible, this sees only limited use, since it usually exists for plot purposes, so there’s a place to put old masters and sentient AIs. Show that skew towards very wide competence porn may make use of this tier as a distinguisher, but that’s something to be careful about, because it can turn into an arms race.

The base mechanic is simple and diceless – higher rank wins. The bigger the margin, the more the higher tier dominates. If it’s more than one step, the higher ranked character does not just win, but effectively controls how the situation spools out. With this in mind, one of the “tactical” avenues of play is to leverage a situational rank boost. This is not easy, but it can be done to reflect things like overwhelming force. A mob of Capable cops can be a threat to an Exceptional soldier unless he can change the situation somehow. This is also incentive to try to move a conflict to a different domain.

If a conflict happens within a tier, that’s when you switch over to a more fiddly system. The actual fiddly system is kind of irrelevant, and can absolutely be tuned to your taste. It may seem kind of handwavey to describe it so briefly, but as with domains, the decision for how you handle conflicts is based on how you want your specific play to go. If you need it to be something, assume it’s Risus.

There are other bits. Adding aspects as a meta-wrapper is easy enough – in the main game, an invoke can increase your rank within limits. It can either let you bypass something with no particular opposition or can let you get up to a fair fight against opposition. Within the subgame for conflict, their utility depends on how the specific subgame works. Because of the granularity of this, it tends to work well for the “Few, but potent” model of aspects rather than the “language of narrative” approach, but I’m sure that can be tweaked.

Anyway, I want to share the TVGame because it gives me a decent way to talk about things I see on TV and how I’d game them up, which will be fodder for future posts.

Some Epic Backgrounds

This all started after reading a webcomic which I would link to except it currently is hosting a really aggressive browser hijacker.  The punchline is that one of the players in a  group proposed a character concept I would normally have rejected as being far too twinkish for play.  But that got me thinking – how *would* I support a fallen god in play?  And that in turn lead to these 5e backgrounds:


The Ascendent

You were not always as you are today. Once, you were something greater. Something you cannot remember fully, but which still haunts your dreams. You were mighty and glorious, but you were struck down. Perhaps tricked. Perhaps betrayed.

Whoever your enemies were, they no doubt think you destroyed, but some piece of you has lingered on. It has forged this mortal form and set your feet upon the path to restore yourself and to strike down those who laid you low.

But first, you must find out who they are, and by extension, who you are.

Skill Proficiencies: Arcana, Insight

Languages: Speak one from the following list: Abyssal, Celestial, Draconic, Infernal, Primordial

Equipment: a small metal disc containing a symbol your sure has meaning, Travel Clothes, 7 gp

Feature: Lost Legacy

You have forgotten almost everything about your former state, but sometimes snippets of memory will come through, though it is not always helpful. This may take the form of dreams, or of certain places and things seeming familiar to you.

If you ever find your name, you may replace this background with The Fallen background, keeping the same skill and language proficiencies you already selected, and not gaining any new equipment.

Suggested Characteristics

The Ascendant have equal reasons for arrogance and humility. The knowledge of former greatness is tempered by the sense of what was lost. More, they have reason to be secretive about their nature – at best, it is easily interrupted as madness. At worst, you may tip your hand to your unknown enemies.

The Adventuring Ascendant

The ascendant has every incentive to adventure. The secret of the ascendent’s past are not something to be casually discovered, but rather are to be sought out, hoping for memories or destiny to provide a path to ascendance.


Play an Ascendant if:

  • You want your story to be epic from day one
  •  You want to have a big mystery to pursue
  •  You like the idea of not being sure who you are


When your player chooses ascendant, you’ll want to:

  • Figure out who or what they were, at least in broad strokes. God? Arch Lich? Demon? Elemental Prince? Great Old One? You can either collaborate with the player on this, or keep it secret, as suits your tables.
  • Figure out who their enemies were and put them on the shelf to slowly reveal over the course of play.
  • Identify a few people who knew the ascendant in their original form but are not necessarily enemies.
  • Consider time. Did the character fall recently or sometime long ago?

The Fallen

They struck you odeon, but you will rise again. You remember what you once were. You remember those who struck you down. They think you are gone, but you outsmarted them all. You have survived, and while this mortal shell holds only a sliver of your lost power and understanding, it offers a path to regain what you have lost. And perhaps to eke out some revenge.

Skill Proficiencies: Arcana, Insight

Languages: Speak one from the following list: Abyssal, Celestial, Draconic, Infernal, Primordial

Equipment: a burnt reminder of what you once were, Travel Clothes, 6 gp

Feature: A Name to Conjure With

Your name is known in the circles of the great. When you meet with beings of great power (demons, devils, elemental princes, great dragons and so on) then they will recognize your name, and will be willing to treat with you respectfully (insofar as their nature allows). Your name carries no more weight than that, so while it may open a door or create an opportunity for conversation, it’s still on you to make it work.

Suggested Characteristics

Unlike the Ascendant, the fallen remembers who they were and something of their former circumstances (though details remain hazy). This tends to swing them more towards arrogance and no small amount of “Fools, I will destroy you all!” though it is still possible for the character to be introspective, or even conflicted about their history.

The Adventuring Fallen

Well, of course you’re going to adventure. How else will you do this?


Play a Fallen if:

  • You want your story to be epic from day one
  • You want to be driven with a purpose
  • You like the idea of being exceptionally special


When your player chooses ascendant, you’ll want to:

  • Figure out who or what they were, at least in broad strokes. God? Arch Lich? Demon? Elemental Prince? Great Old One? You should collaborate with the player on this.
  • Figure out who their enemies were and put them on the shelf to slowly reveal over the course of play.
  • Identify a few people who knew the ascendant in their original form but are not necessarily enemies.
  • Is the character the only remnant of their original form? Would they know?

SIDEBAR: Warlocks

There is absolutely no reason a Warlock’s patron could not be themself (or rather, the remnant of themself).  Mechanically, it doesn’t change anything, it just defines the relationship in a particular way. 

Character Description

I am using a lazier model for PIBF. At some point, these will be d20 each, but for now

Use these Mad Libs Style: “I am a PERSONALITY, IDEALS BONDS who FLAWS”


  1. Swaggering
  2. Standoffish
  3. Serene
  4. Meticulous
  5. Restrained
  6. Outgoing


  1. Arrogant
  2. Introspective
  3. Brave
  4. Calculating
  5. Generous
  6. Paranoid


  1. Warrior
  2. Scholar
  3. Student
  4. Keeper of the Faith
  5. Criminal
  6. Politician
  7. Leader
  8. Follower


  1. Refuses to ask for help when needed.
  2. Sticks their nose in other people’s business.
  3. Won’t change their mind once it’s made up.
  4. Takes care of themselves first.
  5. Is always looking for a way to get rich quick.
  6. Spends money like water

A Kindness of Doomguard

doomguardOk, I said some mean things about the Sinkers in my last post, and DavetheGame came to their defense, so let me step back and unpack that a little bit.

The Sinkers, AKA The Doomguard, are another Planescape faction. They are more or less entropy cultists, feeling that decay and destruction are not only inevitable, but desirable, as it is only through the destruction of all things that we will clear a path to a perfect universe. Or so they say. Mostly, it’s just an excuse to smash things. They are, as you might expect, violent and destructive.

Now, let me step back a bit. One of the interesting things about Planescape is that each faction has a role in the city. Because the ruler of the city (The Lady of Pain) is hands off (unless you piss her off), the factions have stepped into fill most civil roles out of necessity. General consensus is that the Lady of Pain tolerates them because they keep things working, and no one wants to piss of the Lady.

The thing is, the factions are not necessarily nice, but they do their jobs. As I noted previously, the Bleak Cabal are, well, pretty bleak, but they run the poorhouses and charities. The Harmonium serve as police. The Fated (who are jerks) keep the records. The Godsmen keep the forges going. Everyone has a role, even the Revolutionary League, whose role is to take down the other factions! The exception is the Xaositects, but that is part and parcel of the discordian/fishmalk package.

The Doomguard control the city’s armory.

On paper, this makes some sense. They’re arguably the most martial of the factions, so someplace weapony seems appropriate. But there’s a problem – there’s no actual point to having an armory in Sigil. It’s not like all the weapons are kept there, and if they were, what woudl be done with them? There’s no army to equip, and since the only way in or out of sigil is through magical doors (which are controlled by the Lady of Pain) there is no call for a standing army. It’s possible that ancient secret weapons are stored there, but if that is so, then the Doomguard are the worst possible choice to control the Armory.

So, as written, they’re a bunch of violent nutbars with no real role in the setting except to get used as plot devices in published adventures that I’d rather not talk about.

But the idea is salvageable, and here is how I do it.

The doomguard have been given the Armory and tasked with the defense of the city from external threats. When something big and unpleasant shows up and starts inflicting propery damage, the sinkers roll out of the armory gates and go forth to inflict great violence upon it. When the do so, they are allowed to use weapons and spells of great destructive potency, ones that are normally barred from deployment in the city.

This does not happen often – the Sinkers do enough damage on their rampages that the threat needs to be pretty serious, but such threats do exist, and relying on the Lady to deal with every such threat seems like an excellent way to test her patience. By agreement, three other faction heads must agree to unleashing the doomguard, but in the face of an obvious threat, the Doomguard have not always been meticulous in adhering to those rules.

But for all that, they serve a critical purpose in Sigil, not terribly different than that of a fire patrol. This also fuels some rivalry between the Harmonium and the Doomguard, as the former are tasked with keeping the streets safe ona day to day basis. The Harmonium would like nothing better than to be able to arm and equip themselves to deal with these threats, but no other faction is comfortable giving them that kind of power. They find it maddening that these berserkers are trusted off the leash to do work the Harmonium woudl be better suited to handle. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Doomguard explicitly dsescribe themsleves as handling threats no one else is tough enough for, and are entirely willing to rub this in the Hardhead’s faces.

With that change, the doomguard are welcome in my Sigil. They’re still nuts and dangerous, but they serve a purpose. They’re a part of the city, and for me, that’s the most important thing.

The Rule of Hardheads

hardheadI have always been a fan of Planescape (mild understantement there) and all of the factions take up portions of space in my head. For the unfamiliar, each faction corresponds to a philosophy of how the universe works that might or might not be true. The philosophies themselves are interesting, but they become more interesting in the way they interface with the practical concerns of the actual organization, specifically in regards to their role in the city of Sigil. Sometimes it falls flat – The Doomguard and the Xaositects have never really worked for me because their philosophies (Yay Entropy! and FIshmalks forever!, respectively) are hard to square with them keeping their stuff together enough to actually do things.

I blame the writing a bit. The Bleak Cabal (who think the world is a meaningless pile of crap) could easily fall into that trap, but in the book that dug into the factions in detail, it really unpacked the fact that beause they have such a bleak view, that *drives* them to charitable works. The world is terrible, so it is on us to make it a little less terrible.

I bring this up because the faction I think about most has bubbled to the top of my head again. They are not my favorite faction, nor the one I’m drawn to, but they may be the one I find most *interesting*, and they are The Harmonium.

Some Planescape fans might find this weird. The Harmonium (AKA the Hardheads) are presented as the bully boys of the Planescape setting. They come across as borderline facists who are all about thumping people over the head for any kind of inappropriateness anddragging them off in irons. They make for the kind of characters that players really love to hate.

But what intrigues me about them is that while they are nominally the face of authoritarianism (as well as a number of other unpleasant isms), that is only a consequence of the really interesting idea behind them. Taking from between the lines and at the edges of the Harmonium, the picture is kind fo fascinating. Faced with the challenge of a universe that may or may not have any rules, what rules should you follow? In the absence of clear guidance, can you take a swing at the best rules?

And that’s the real heart of the Harmonium’s ideology – a pragmatism that says it is better to have a set of rules than no set at all. This set may not be perfect, and it needs to grow and evolve, but the point is to *have* those rules. And the more people who follow those rules, the better off *everyone* will be.

It’s easy to see where this goes wrong. Rules can grow and evolve, but what keeps them from overgrowing, or growing in unhealthy directions? What happens when things change? And what happens when someone decides that some folks need to follow the rules for their own good?

And that idea of goodness is important. You can assume the best of intentions and still have all of these things go wrong. But from the inside, those problems may not be visible, or may be attributed to problems outside the rules. Even when a problem gets recognized, it can be easily dismissed as a anomaly – something that needs to be fixed, certainly, but no big deal when compared to all the good that the rules do.

In D&D terms, Harmonium members tend to Lawful, but its an umbrella that equally easily handles Good, Evil and everything in between. And there is no contradiction to a LN or LE hardhead who is working for the greater good. There are always lawyers and monsters to be found.

But you need not even go so far. For many, there is an immense relief in having rules to follow, and a number of non-admirable human tendencies come out in those most willing to accept rules without question. And that, in turn, leads is to the cartoonish hardhead who is so well known on Sigil. She is uninterested in the philosophy of the rules because the rules have provided her clarity and guidance, and in her real life of stone and bread, that is what really matters. She doesn’t understand why peopel are so *dumb* and *self-harming* as to follow their decadent, self-destructive paths, but she’ll do what she can to save them, no matter how much they hate her.

Because she is a hero. At least according to the rules.

From Bonds to Flags

flying-flag2Random bit of Dungeon World tech, inspired by a brilliant idea from Judd Karlman’s 1st Quest.

When playing with a changing cast of characters, the bond list gets torn to tatters pretty fast. You can address this by adding more bonds, or creating temporary bonds, but that gets kind of clunky as things shift. So with that in mind, here’s another possible solution: Invert the problem

Replace Bonds with Flags (or if you prefer, Buttons) – Flags are behaviors that other players enable, ideally ones that really emphasize elements of your character as you envision them. So, if you envision your character as gullible, then the flag might be “Tell me a lie that I beleive”. If you envision your Paladin as righteous, then the flag might be “Offer me an easier solution that cuts corners I am unwilling to cut”

Now, when we play a game and we come to a guard post, my thief can propose that we bribe the guard. The paladin gets all paladin-y about its, and insists they proceed honorable. The thief has effectively hit the Paladin’s flag, and at the end of the session, she gets an XP in the same way that she would if she’d had a bond like “I will offer the paladin solutions that woudl simplyfy the problems if he woudl just lighten up”.

OPTIONAL RULE: You can actually get more generous with the XP for flags, and given them to both players. This even allows multiple players to get in on the act, so if the ranger hits the Paladin’s flag later in the session, at session end, the thief, ranger and paladin all get one XP (Paladiin still gets only 1 – it only matters that it came up, not how often it came up). If you do this, I would suggest that 6- results stop giving XP and instead give some other currency, or just accept that characters are going to level faster.

This will require coming up with a list of flags, and helping players customize them. Every character should probably have 2 flags, though if you want to give bond-heavy classes like Bards 3, knock yourself out. The flags themselves will need a few things:

  • They must have a clearly identifiable action (So they can’t be judged by effect – “Make my wizard feel bad” is a poor flag. “Refuse my wizard’s aid because he’s a foreigner” works well)
  • They must create some sort of conflict or tension, usually reflected by a choice. There must be a legitimate alternative. “Attempt to poison me so I can notice it” is pretty bad, because there’s no reason to “not” notice it. If there is not a choice, the action itself must be something that could complicate things. “Call me bob” is a poor flag. :)
  • They should give me an opportunity to show off something about my character that I might not otherwise have the chance to do so.

A few possible flags

Gullible – Tell me a lie I believe

Liar – Believe and act on a lie I’ve told you

Righteous – Offer me an easier solution I must refuse on principle.

Outsider – Refuse my aid because I’m different

Leader – Allow me to make a decision so you can criticize it.

Heroic – Let me keep you from going first into danger so I can go myself

An NPC Grid

I was watching some clips of Leverage, as I am sometimes wont to do, and I was particular taken by a sequence of supporting characters.

The thing about Leverage is that the crew are very capable, but they also have a code, something that makes them good guys. I’m calling this clarity, but feel free to pick your own word. It’s important that there are two axes, because they provide a useful comparison to the characters around them.

That is to say, if there is someone important to the show who is not a member of the crew, they are lacking in one \of those two categories. Characters who have capability but not clarity tend to be enemies or foils (Sterling, Chaos and so on). Characters who have clarity but not capability tend to be allies and supporting characters (the FBI agents, Maggie, Jack Hurley). Characters lacking in both tend to be mooks or victims, and sometimes marks. It’s all pretty easy to illustrate in a grid.


Marks, notably, fall outside of this arrangement because their role is very different. They are often more and less capable than the crew, and may have both more and less clarity. I’m ok with that for Leverage.


Anyway, I’m intrigued by the grid because I want to remember to use it in my own games, specifically to make sure that I have names in every box. It’s easy to remember the foils because they’re so much fun, but it’s worth the effort to remember the sympathetic NPCs. If your heroes have clarity regarding who they are, nothing tests that like someone else trying to live up to the same rules and failing.

But it’s also kind of Leverage specific, since it’s a game where it’s appropriate that the PCs are “up and to the right”. That’s far from common, so I tweaked the model a bit for more traditional games.


Notably I replaces “clarity” with “drive”. This partly moves away from the moral component from leverage, but it also allowed me to move the foils to the right. :) In this case, drive equates to the strength and direction of a character’s agenda.

The lower left is still largely the same, except the foils have been replaced by neutrals – characters who could act, but choose not to. On paper, these should be the most boring of characters, but in small doses they tend to be quite compelling.

Above them is the Old Man From Scene 26, which is the stand in for overpowered NPCs with no reason to be there. They tend to not contribute much to a game, but some setting shave a role for powerful observers or the equivalent. They may be more prize than participant.

To the right we have the mentors – the folks who are similar to the PCs but more capable. As with the Old Man From Scene 26, these can be a problem, and it’s best to either remove them from the board early, occupy them, or make them a source of trouble in their own right (in the sprit of the elders of Amber).

I put villains in the upper right, which may seem weird, especially since it’s so close to the PCs and the mentors, but consider: what makes a villain interesting is that they are at odds with whatever the characters want, and they cannot easily be turned from that path. Without those two characteristics, the villain is merely a challenge.

Foils re-emerge on the far right – they are as capable as the PCs, but their motives take them elsewhere.

The lower right is the category I’m east sure of – NPCs with little capability but a lot of drive. That is to say – plot hooks. And that’s great as far as it goes, but I’m not sure what I’d do with an NPC who lives in that space.


As with the Leverage grid, the utility of a grid like this is to be able to drop your NPC names and see if any gaps reveal themselves. It’s a simple trick, but maybe useful.