The Role of GM

Saw another thing about the magic of GMless play the other day, and my response is largely what it always is: I think it’s nice, but it doesn’t really excite me.

To be clear, that’s not a criticism, it’s just a statement of taste. Games like Microscope and Fiasco are great, and can absolutely be fun to play. But they don’t scratch any particular itch for me. I enjoy them when I play them, but don’t necessarily seek them out. And there’s no harm in that – our tastes are not uniform, and it would kind of suck if they were.

But this is on my mind because a comment on my Santorini post cut right to the heart of one of the biggest challenges to a “pick up and play” RPG – the GM. There are decent tricks and tools for getting players ramped up very quickly, but the idea of going from zero to GM seems much more daunting.

One of the solutions to this is, of course, GMless play.

It seems like a no brainer. Cut the Gordian knot and remove the problem entirely. I have to respect a solution like that. And more, I acknowledge that for certain games (particularly those that unfold in a procedural manner) it can probably work really well. For these games, there is probably a lot to be said for looking at the kinds of things that companies like Stronghold Games are doing with making games with no rulebook, but which instead make teaching the game and emergent part of the gameplay.[1]

But it’s also a bit of a cheat, depending on the job you think the GM has. Critically, the GM is often the subject matter expert on the game in question. Obviously, this may not be the case for established tables, but we’re talking new players and new games here. In this case, the problem we encounter is that the GM’s lack of expertise is the thing we need to replace. That may not seem like a big deal until you consider that many GMless games skirt this problem by including a “facilitator” role.

This is not a bad thing: Every game is more easily learned and played when someone at the table is a familiar with it, so making space for that person is good design. But since we’re explicitly talking about picking up a game quickly, that option isn’t available to us. This doesn’t remove GMless games as a solution, but it means they’re in the same boat with everything else – looking at the question of how to convey what’s necessary in a playable fashion.

So, we’ve lost the silver bullet, but it’s highlighted something very useful. If we’re not going GMless, what does that mean?

People have a lot of answers to that question. I could fill pages with the differing interpretations of what a GM can and should be[2]. Hell, half the reason I shrug at the argument for GMless play is that they often rest on definitions of GM driven play which are very different than my experience or taste.

I can’t pretend to offer a comprehensive list of GM roles, but I do want to focus on what I consider the big 3, authority, entertainer and enabler.

The GM as authority is the expert on and boss of the game. She makes the choices about the game, enforces and interprets the rules, implements rule zero(or doesn’t) and is generally in charge. There is a lot of potential nuance around where that authority comes from, but the role is pretty simple. The advantages of this role is that it keeps things going and provides clarity for everyone at the table. The disadvantages are that this is a SUPER abusable dynamic, and a lot of game horror stories come from it going awry.[3]

The GM as entertainer is one that we tend to both ignore and take for granted. Classically, the idea is that the GM is generating (or using existing) content for the players to bounce off of and have a fun time. For many GMs, this is the best part. It’s an outlet for their creativity which they delight in sharing. They delight in it so much that we tend to overlook that this is work. This becomes relevant when we talk about new players – this is a hard role to step into from zero.

The GM as enabler (which sounds less weird than “servant”, the term I actually use in my head) is there to help the players along to the thing they want. I think of this as the most important role, since it is most closely tied to the table’s fun, but it’s also a tricky one. To do it successfully requires understanding what the table wants enabled, which is sometimes murky. Classically, we also have a problem with this role because it is the least well supported in our games and history.

EDIT:  in comments, Fred suggests celebrant as a better name for this, and he is 100% right.  Not only is it less weird, it also allows all three roles to be nouns (authority, entertainment and celebration) much more easily.  As such, that’s the term I’ll be using form now on. 

Now, these roles can be complimentary or contradictory from game to game and table to table. A GM might have strong authority and great entertainer skills while ignoring enabler responsibilities entirely, and her table might have an amazing time. Another GM might not entertain at all, but run a tight (authority), player-focused(enabler) game that everyone enjoys. There are many paths to a great game, and no one right route.

But I mention them in this context because it occurs to me that perhaps the trick may be to stop short of going GMless, and instead opt to explicitly narrow the GM’s role to something smaller and more specific.

The raw form this took when it popped into my head was “hey, what if the GM wasn’t tasked with coming up with content, but instead was just expected to learn some tools for helping players do cool things?”. I’d now restate that as “ok, can we teach the enabler role out of a box?”, and the thing is, i think we can.

In fact, I think we could teach any of those roles out of the box. The problem only becomes daunting when you try to teach more than one of them.

So now I find myself thinking about the differences in how i would teach those roles, and it highlights one more key point: you are under no obligation to stop at one role. I mean, feel free to do so – if you want to design your game so the GM’s role is pure enabler, then feel free. Just make sure you figure out how to make it fun for the GM.

But you can just as easily start from one role as the one to learn out of the box. And just as players will gain mastery and depth, so too can the GM. Other roles and responsibilities can be layer on after that first session of play has hooked them and left them hungry for more. THAT is when you can start laying it on thick.

Not sure if this helps anyone but me, but I am definitely feeling a step closer to a workable model here.

1 – Though this sounds great on paper, the one downside I’ve found to this approach is that I’ve only seen it work for fairly simple games. The idea is a good one, but I am not yet sure how it scales.

2 – But here’s one crazy one: it is pretty dumb that we treat the role of GM as the same from game to game rather than a function of each game-as written and game-as-played.

3 – This does not make it all bad. A table can knowingly grant someone authority because they trust them to make it worthwhile, and that combination of authority and trust can make for AMAZING play. But that takes a lot of work, and it not for everyone, which is fine. But I want to mention it because for many people, GM authority is automatically toxic, and I disagree with that notion pretty strongly.

Investment vs Escalation

I was thinking about TV shows and the easy trick of upping the stakes to increase viewer investment, and how it’s kind of cheap. We all know this: it is a lot less work to have the plot endanger a bunch of kids than it is to spend the time to get us to invest in a smaller problem. Trauma is a super useful shorthand when time is short.

We have a version of this in RPGs, and it has a similar tension, but is maybe a bit more confusing. See, the TV model only sucks because writing characters we care about is the harder but better option, so forced escalation feels cheap. RPG characters are a bit more nuanced.

At first blush it would seem that if you are playing with a high level of character investment, forced escalation is awkward. But what if a high level of character investment is something you reach quickly? Playing a character over time to explore them is one valid mode, but so is slipping into a new character and buying in IMMEDIATELY. For that player, the “forced” escalation might just be jumping to the good part.

And, of course, some players are more interested in the escalation (or rather, the issue behind the escalation) and for them a *lack* of character investment provides some emotional protection (or distance, for authorial purposes),

Obviously, taste is rooted so deeply in this that there is no one good solution, which is as it should be. But I mention it because I sometimes see people get confused about how people could *enjoy* certain types of games (usually those with fairly bleak content), and the instinct is to look at the content for explanation. I suggest that if you can shake free your assumptions about character investment, it might be easier to make sense of.

Personally, my tastes skew towards investing in a character over time and seeing where play takes them. This makes high escalation, short term play something I have to really shift gears to enjoy, and I’m not always successful. But I get that that’s my bag, and thinking about stuff like this is how I made peace with it.

(Semi experimental post. Did it all on my phone while sitting in a waiting room, so apologies for any weirdness.)

The Santorini Experience

Picture of the boardgame box for Santorini I Was in the position of entertaining a tween the other day, so I busted out Santorini. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Santorini is a delightful boardgame of tower building and Greek gods. It’s a favorite around our household.

But what made it very useful in this context was something else. While it is a very deep, flexible and replayable game, its core is incredibly simple: move a builder, then place a tower piece, plus some win conditions. It literally took more time for us to open up the box and set up than it took for me to teach everything he needed to know to play.

Now, if this was all there was to the game, it would be fun but shallow(but, critically, it’s still fun in its simplest form), but the game has space for additional layers of complexity. Once you know the rules, each player can take on the role of one of the gods, which allows them to add one special move to the game (Hermes can move his units farther, for example). There are varying levels of complexity to the gods, and the game unfolds uniquely based on the interplay between the gods chosen (all to say nothing of other expansions, like heroes).

So the result is something that is trivial to learn, immediately rewarding to play, but scales up in complexity and depth with player interest. That’s pretty awesome.

Ok, so with that in mind, I want to bring up another conversation that threaded through Metatopia.

PAX unplugged is coming up in about two weeks, and a lot of people are going to be curious how it goes. Last year it was a whole new thing, and no one knew quite what to expect, and some of our guesses were just wrong.

Most tellingly, the reports from people in the dealer’s hall were wildly varied – some booths sold like mad, while others had very little traction at all. This is a little bit weird, but I have a theory about it based on my own observations. See, the PAX unplugged crowd was not the usual gaming convention crowd – they were the PAX crowd – and they brought in a different culture. This showed up in a lot of ways (they are WAY more line tolerant, for one thing) but was maybe most interesting in relation to games.

What I observed was that it was a crowd with a deep enthusiasm for games and play, but not necessarily a lot of patience. There’s a cynical interpretation of that, but I largely took it as a result of them not having bought into the various things we think about how games “should” be. Most specifically, this meant they wanted games that they could buy, walk over to a table, and play.

That makes sense when you say it out loud, but when I stop an think about most “gamer” games, especially RPGs, the disconnect becomes apparent. Most RPG purchases follow more of a pattern of “One person buys it, spends time reading it, then spends time prepping, then gathers a group to try this thing out”. I don’t tend to think much of it because that’s just how it’s done, but to a newcomer that has got to just seem stupid.

Presuming this is a market we want to reach out to (I know I do), it raises the question of what needs to change. “Quick Start” sets have been around in RPGs forever, but they are usually more like marketing promos or GM aids than anything to actually help play start quickly.[1]. Tech tricks like putting choose your own adventures in the game book have helped shorten the ramp-up for prospective GMs, but that only produces marginal results.

We’ve seen decent success with semi-RPG boardgames (Gloomhaven being the current hotness) that hit many RPG notes but use boardgame style setup. This is interesting and educational to me, but it’s not a line I wish to pursue because it solves different problems than the ones that intrigue me. That it, removing the parts that make RPGs hard also removes the parts that make them most interesting to me.

To this end I am intrigued by the rising “Larp in a Box” category, which you can see in Ghost Court and which I expect is going to EXPLODE on the scene when the new release of Fiasco comes out. Unsurprising, since the Bully Pulpit folks are crazy clever. There’s also some really neat emergent play tech happening in things like Alex Roberts’ For The Queen.

So I’m watching these things and taking notes, because the thing I realized while playing with that tween is that what I ultimately want is to be able to deliver that Santorini experience with an RPG. Get playing immediately and enjoyably, but be able to expand complexity with mastery and interest.

It should be doable. I can see the pieces of it in my head. But getting them to gel is going to be the trick.

1 – Eternal exception for the Exalted QuickStart, which was not much of a pointer for Exalted as written, but in its own terms was one of the best games I’ve ever read.

Auto Compelling Dice

I’ve been thinking a lot about things you can do when you change the assumptions of the Fate Point economy, and I hit upon a curious trick, one which is very simple as a rule, but very deep in its implications. The rule is this:

  • If the player rolls a -3 or -4, they gain a Fate Point.

Simple, yes? But lets unpack the implications a bit.

First, there is no requirement that the low result stand. If the player wants to spend a fate point for a reroll or a bonus to offset the roll, then they can, and the first such point gets rebated. But the only way that they get to keep the free fate point is to let the roll stand. That is to say, the player is accepting a bad outcome in return for currency. Or, put another way:

The dice are offering a compel, which the player may accept ot not.

Once you think about it like a compel, it all kind of clicks into place – the bad die result is no longer an outcome, rather it’s a trigger for a twist, a complication or something else appropriate to a compel. It’s an invitation for trouble. Which, in turn, means the effective dice curve of results is now -2 to +4, which is satisfying on a few levels.

It is so satisfying, in fact, that I’d actually be inclined to expand this to -2, -3 and -4 results. That would means dice compels come up more frequently, and the remaining dice results are very respectful of character capability.

What’s also interesting is that there is no particular interaction with aspects in this. Originally, this idea struck me as I was pondering replacements for the current fate point economy. In the absence of GM-driven compels, this could be the sole source of Fate Points for players, which might satisfy players who don’t like that kind of GM authorship. Or it could be used in a game that doesn’t use aspects at all to still allow for a bit of organic pacing.

What intrigues me most about this approach is that it could be used as a step to decouple fate points from aspects. As to why someone might want to do that…well, that’s probably its own blog post.

Bites in the Dark

Wolf’s Head in front of the moonScott Parker shared a great post on his experience using Blades of Fate to run a Dungeon World game, and that got me thinking about probability1 which lead to all this.

I ended up talking a bit about my love of the Blades in the Dark dice pools on twitter, and specifically how well it combines with Don’t Rest Your Head. For the unfamiliar, DRYH uses different color dice to represent different ideas (like exhaustion, discipline or Madness), and when you roll a set of dice, the color of the die you use influences the outcome, both narratively and mechanically.

As with most die pool systems, it meshes very easily with BITD’s model of success and partial success, and I have been kicking around a few different things that could use this model. In the process, I came up with a quick add-on hack for Blades that at up several tweets, and I figured I’d gather it in one place.

And with that preamble out of the way, I present…

Bites In The Dark

(Title courtesy of @krenshar_posts)

This is a hack for playing werewolves (or something similar) in Blades In The Dark. In the absence of a lunar cycle, this idea is designed to model the kind fo fiction where the narrator talks about “the beast” in the third person while describing what it smells or does or wants. It’s an unwelcome presence that offers power but also threatens to overwhelm.

I’m agnostic regarding how someone becomes a werewolf, but once they do, there are two mechanical effects.

  1. Create a clock for that character labeled “THE BEAST” and set it to four wedges.
  2. The character receives one “moon die”. This should be of a visibly different color from their other dice. Assuming your Blades dice are black, white or silver is appropriate.

The moon die (or dice) should be rolled alongside the player’s other dice. When the player chooses which die is used for the result of the roll, and they choose a moon die, that has the following effects.

  1. Narratively, The Beast has helped drive the outcome, and that should be accounted for descriptively.
  2. Gain another moon die.
  3. Mark off a wedge of The Beast’s Clock

If the player uses multiple moon dice (such as for a critical success), then do these steps for every die used. This may exceed the size of the clock (in which case, don’t worry about marking any further) but it will increase the number of moon dice held by the character.

When the Beast’s clock fills, that means the character transforms and loses control. This effect can be resisted, but Moon Dice aren’t used on that resistance roll, and at best it will merely defer the effect until the end of the scene.

Upon transformation, the following happens:

  1. The GM takes control of the character and describes what happens. This is going to be gruesome and bad, and probably make for consequences for everyone. I strongly discourage the GM from outright attacking the rest of the crew, rather, let the Beast rampage, and let the consequences flow from that. The GM also controls when, where and in what condition the character returns, but she should be mindful of pacing this.
  2. If this happens while the crew is on a job, tally up the number of moon dice held by the character. After heat is calculated, add that much heat to the total.
  3. If this happens between jobs, treat it as if the character had run amok (See below).
  4. Clear the clock and reset the character’s moon pool to 1 die.

New Downtime Action: Run Amok

When the Beast threatens to run wild, sometimes the best solution is to let it. You take yourself someplace isolated and let the beast run wild, but the consequences of this can be dire.

Roll the character’s moon pool taking the best result (this roll won’t accrue wedge or moon dice), then consult this chart:

1-3 – Nobody important died. A few greased palms and charitable contributions should be able to smooth things over. Someone needs to spend 1 coin to cover this, and if they cannot, then take the 4-5 result.

4-5 – The Beast’s rampage is a subject of gossip, rumor and no small amount of fear. Start a clock labeled “Fear of the Beast Passes” with 4 wedges. Until it is cleared, jobs generate 1 extra heat, and indulging Vice clears one less stress. If this effect is triggered again while the clock is active, increase its wedge count by another 4.

6 – Hunters arrive to pursue the beast with steely glares and weapons of silver. The first time this happens, they are a tier II gang with a -1 relationship with the crew. The second time, the relationship drops by 1. The third time their tier increases as more hunters arrive. After that, it’s War.

6+ – One of the following happens:

One of your crew’s allies was attacked and has been infected.
One of your crew’s enemies was attacked, and has been infected.
Your worst enemy knows you are The Beast
Your closest friend/love knows you are The Beast.

After this roll and effect, clear The Beast’s clock, and return the Moon Die pool to 1.

Notes For Clarity

  • The player explicitly has the option of not using the Moon dice in a result. That choice it kind of the point.

And that is pretty much it.

Options and Variations:

There are a LOT of options for how to tweak this, mostly because there are a lot of different things being a werewolf might mean at the table, so these allow some tweaking.

Some of these options are also possible for ideas which are similar to werewolves, but thematically different. Deals with dark powers, sinister magical weapons, a personal Hyde or ripper – all of these things and more can be modeled with these rules with some changes in color, and possibly by picking slightly different options.

Magical Effects
If the player wants to do something that should be impossible, but makes sense under the auspices of the Beast (like, make an impossible jump, or track someone through a crowd by smell) they they can do so, rolling only moon dice and resolving normally. Since this guarantees that moon dice will be used, it also guarantees triggering a moon die gain.

It’s worth noting that this is potentially very powerful – allowing the “impossible” in Blades removes the one check against runaway player action (the GM not calling for a roll). It can get around tier issues and generally allows for very big results. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s something to be very aware of and in alignment on. It also should be reflected in the scope of potential consequences when the Beast gets loose.

Gentler Lycanthropy
The player is not obliged to roll moon dice, though if they do, they must roll them all. Rolling moon dice is treated as accepting a Devil’s Bargain, so they cannot be further supplements.

This slightly constrains the bonus on the rolls, and makes it much less likely that the character will lose control. That removes a fair amount of the risk from the system, but sometimes that’s appropriate. This is suitable for games where the beast is more controllable by its nature, or for ones where something else is keeping The Beast in check (for example, this rule might only be in play so long as the character is regularly taking Wolfsbane infusions, or at certain times & places). An advantage of tying this to something in the fiction is that its loss is now a viable (and toothy, ha ha) consequence.

Less Predictable Clock
Set The Beast’s clock to 8 wedges, but change the process so that when a moon die or dice are used, do the following.

  1. Incorporate the Narrative
  2. Increase the character’s moon die pool by the number of moon dice used.
  3. Roll all moon dice and take the best result. Increase The Beasts clock 1 space on a 1-3, 2 spaces on a 4-5, 3 spaces on a 6, and one additional space for each additional 6. The good news is that this roll does not trigger any additional moon die gain.

I went with 8 wedges here, assuming 2 wedges per roll, but that’s going to be unevenly distributed, and it can go much faster if the dice are unkind. The upshot of this is that the number of moon dice the character is holding will be much less predictable when they transform (so the mechanical effects are less predictable). This is also, frankly, a little bit meaner, especially since it feels more generous (8 wedges!).

Werewolf Healing
Transformation (either in play or RUnning Amok), clears any wounds the character has.

This is super kind – healing is a pain in Blades – but it’s kind of thematically appropriate.

Temporary Power
The assumption is that this state does not go away, but it’s entirely possible that after transformation occurs, that’s it. The possessing spirit flees, or the drug wears off or whatever.

In this case, transformation should have a very specific meaning or cost, something that makes it a Damoclean sword hanging over the character.

Fatal Power
The flipside of Temporary Power – once the clock fills, that’s it, you’re done. In this case, I strongly suggest that the transformation remain in the player’s control, since this is their moment of going down in a blaze of glory.

This works well with Gentler Lychanthropy, but without it you can get a great Strikeforce Morituri vibe.

Ratcheting Doom
Start the Beast’s Clock at 2 wedges higher than normal. Then, every time it’s cleared and reset, it has 1 fewer wedge. When the clock has zero wedges, that is the final transformation. There is only the Beast now.

This one will take a while to go through, but it has a certain charm for games long enough to sustain its arc. The one thing I don’t like so much is that the moon pool gets smaller with each iteration, so while it represents burnout pretty well, it’s less well suited to the idea of the beast growing stronger.

Edit: Got a great suggestion from @thedicemechanic for this that solves the problem.  Each time the clock resets, the reset moon die pool is one larger, and a wedge of the clock is filled in (rather than getting smaller). So, first time it resets to 2 moon dice, and the first wedge is filled in.  Second time it resets to 3 moon dice and the first two wedges are filled in and so on. This gets the ratcheting, but ALSO keeps the mayhem going. 

Heroic Alternatives
It’s worth noting that this also works for more heroic games. The “transformation” could just as easily be the equivalent of a Limit Break. This scratches the surface of a much bigger alternative, but if anyone is looking to do an Exalted2 or Final Fantasy hack, this option might be helpful.

  1. Specifically, the fact that a critical point about Blades of Fate is that it absolutely privileges success as a consequence of an even distribution of outcomes. This is neither a bug nor a feature so much as something to be explicitly mindful of when choosing it. If you want people to mostly be awesome but occasionally surprised by twists, it’s a good approach, but if you expect the dice to provide more complication, it’s going to seem too easy. To my mind it relies on compels to make up that gap, but the exact balance will absolutely have a component of taste to it. ↩︎
  2. In thinking about this, I realized that BLADES IN THE SUN is a fantastic ideas that I don’t have the time or energy to pursue right now. ↩︎

Dice Adjacent Fate

I have thought about diceless Fate on numerous occasions, but it’s a hard sell for fairly personal reasons. See, one of the reasons Fate exists is that Fred & I loved the Amber DRPG, but wanted to bring some randomness back into it, for our own sensibilities. Still despite that resistance, the reality has always been that Fate is trivial to convert to diceless play by simple virtue of the 0-centered dice results. If you just assume that all dice rolls come up 0, you’re about 90% of the way to supporting diceless play.

This works ok. Play becomes much more about the exchange of fate points and the impact of aspects, which is kind of fun, but also demands a little bit more precision in the language about where fate points come from and when (thus, the previous post). All solvable problems. But what’s the fun in that?

So I got to thinking about a thing you see in PBTA derived games, where the dice produce flavorful results, but don’t actually take difficulty into account in the rolling. I admit, that sits poorly with me, but it struck me that the idea could be twisted to work by separating the die roll entirely from the question of success or failure.

That is, consider a Fate game where success or failure is determined entirely by whether or not your skill (or approach, or whatever) is equal to or greater than the difficulty of the the task you’re trying. Rules remain the same – treat it like you rolled a zero and keep moving.(fn)
But then add an extra step: Roll the dice for the outcomes.

Now, this is going to be a little counterintuitive for gamers, since we have been trained to consider success/failure to be the outcome, but in this case the question of success has already been resolved dicelessly, so the roll is entirely to determine the other things that the roll would normally handle. The results would be something like (EDIT: NOW WITH THE RIGHT TABLE):

+4 - Miraculous +3 - Amazing +2 - Pretty good +1 - OK 0 - Good Enough -1 - Enh -2 - Ew -3 - Crap! -4 #$%!*&

In this system, aspect invocations can be used in two ways:

  1.  to add +1 to the skill or approach (to buy success)
  2. As die flippers on the roll

Now, it’s worth noting that this is part of what the previous setup was for – in this model, the GM can also use compels to flip dice because that can’t bring failure in the traditional sense, but it can complicate a situation.


Now given that, here’s the really interesting trick. The Press Your Luck mechanic.

If you are facing a situation where you know you’re going to fail, but want to try anyway, you absolutely can.  Go ahead and roll the dice.  Then remove any plusses you rolled – each plus so removed increases your effective skill/approach by 1.

If that’s enough for you to succeed, then great! Just use the remaining dice to determine your outcome as normal.

If it’s not enough? Well, you still use the result, but replace “Succeed” with “Fail”.

This has been rattling around in my head for a bit now, and I really need to try it out.

Achievements and Levelling Up

Screenshot from Alto’s OddyseyI’ll be back to weird aspect tricks in a bit, but I had an oddball thought.

My son is a big fan of Alto’s Adventure, a tablet game, and I just got him the sequel, Alto’s Oddysey.  He’s happy as a clam, and I’m watching him play, and I was struck by something.

In the game, you level up.  I admit, I don’t 100% know what that means in play – my sense is that it unlocks things in the environment and possibly your access to extras – but that’s not what caught my eye.  Rather, the means of levelling up is, effectively, by getting achievements.

That is, to his level 3, my son needs to collect 50 counts, bounce off a balloon and score 500 points in one run.  These are all things that are likely to happen in play, but the balloon one caught my eye – while the other two will pretty much just happen if he plays enough, the balloon bounce would seem to require some intentionality and luck.

I suspect the way the game is set up is that situations where he needs to bounce off a baloon to progress are now either being introduced or will be more common.  Or at least I would hope so – if the game requires that I do a thing, it seems good design to then tilt things so I’m able to do the thing.

So, of course, that lead to tabletop.  We’ve got lots of different ways to handle advancement, and many of them are well designed for their particular needs, but I admit that I now find myself thinking what achievement based advancement would look like in an RPG.

The first question is where the acheivements come from.  I think “The GM” is a bad answer, but I could see them as part of the system. I could especially see it for a lifepath style system (like WHFRP or Burning Wheel) where the chain of acheivements kind of organically build into a story, but the model could work for almost any game where you’re expecting the character to have an arc.

The other possibility is for them to be authored by the player.  The upside of this is that the player is very *clearly* communicating to the GM the things they want to see in play.  If a player has an achievement “Defeat one of the Red Swordsnakes in single combat”, then that is a *gift* to the GM. And if everyone has 3 of these, the GM can quickly scan to see where spotlight needs to go.

This would require some checks.  It’s abusable, of course (if the player picks trivial acheivements) but even with good intentions, it may require some discussion to line up the acheivements with the game.  I think the best compromise would be pre-written achievements (from the GM, the game, the adventures, player input, everywhere really) which are then chosen among.

These could even be meta goals.  The first three acheivements might all be system mastery things.  Heck, in 5e, advancement from first to second comes so fast that it might as well be:

[] Have a fight
[] Make a stat check
[] Take a long rest

I don’t think this is a good match for every game, but I can definitely see some situational uses as well – this could be a super easy and fun way to do a live mid-session level up at a con game, or provide clear direction in a short arc.

Not sure what I’m going to do with this thought, but it’s in the stew now.

Thoughts on Aspects

I was writing something else, and ended up needing to think a bit about GM compels, scene aspects and a bunch of other things that can sometimes be a bit fluid in Fate.   Specifically, I’m working on a toolset where it’s entirely appropriate for the GM to spend compels for mechanical effects (like flipping dice to minuses) which is a bit of a bugbear in Fate.  So I ended up coming up with some terminology to make it a bit easier to talk about, and that took on a life of its own.

I am genuinely not sure if this is the final form of these ideas, but I’m pretty happy with them as they stand. I think they clarify some ideas that are useful to me, and give me some hooks for other things I have in flight.  However, I have blind spots, so I’m sharing my thinking here because I’m curious what people think.

Anyway, the core here is 4 terms: Dramatic Compels, Mechanical Compels, GM Fate Points and Scene Fate Points.  The ideas behind them will be very familiar to Fate players, most of the newness is in terminology, and most of that is to set up a way to talk about compelling scene aspects.  Take a look and see if it makes sense.

A Dramatic Compel is a compel without an immediate mechanical effect, such as the GM offering a hard choice or appropriate complication. While it may lead to mechanical issues, the compel itself is entirely a function of the fiction. Dramatic compels cost the GM a fate point, and if the aspect compelled is on a character, then the fate point is given to the player unless they pay a fate point to resist the compel.

A Mechanical Compel is a compel with an explicit mechanical effect, and it costs the GM a fate point. While there may be other uses (from stunts or other rules) the default use for a mechanical compel is to either reduce a character’s skill by 1 (before the roll) or flip a die to a – (after the roll). The GM spends a fate point for this, which is given to the player who is acting or rolling. These compels cannot be directly resisted – rather it is expected that if the player wants to counter it, he will spend points for a countering bonus. Mechanical compels are almost always paid for with Scene Fate Points.

GM Fate Points are the GM’s bottomless supply of points used for most dramatic compels. If when the GM spends a GM fate point, it is given to the player upon resolution (so it cannot be used to resist the compel, but it’s available for use to deal with the consequences of the compel).

Scene Fate Points are the GM’s limited budget of scene-specific aspects. The differ from GM Fate points in the following ways:

  • They may be spent for mechanical compels
  • They are awarded to the player affected at the end of the scene.
  • The GM has a limited reserve of them at any given time.

Scene Fate Points can also be used for specific sorts of dramatic compels – dramatic compels on scene aspects.

One use of this is familiar – if a character is tightly tied to a scene aspect, then the aspect might be compelled against them as if it were an aspect on their sheet. In this case, it’s just like invoking a personal aspect, with the point going to the player at the end of the scene,

The other use may be less familiar, and that is to compel the scene. That is, the GM may spend a Scene Fate Point to compel an aspect on the scene in a way that changes the scene. This is a very powerful tool in the GM’s arsenal, and it’s important that the GM follow the narrative logic of the scene when using this, but within those bounds, this provides a simple tool for reflecting the consequences of action in play without it being entirely arbitrary.

To illustrate, consider the example of the building being On Fire. It’s a classic, and offers plenty of opportunities for use, but sooner or later that fire is going to have consequences. The fire department may show up. The sprinklers may come on. The building may collapse. These are all reasonable consequences of the existing aspects, and the GM could very reasonably use a scene compel to make them happen. In this case, the Fate Point is spent but goes to nobody. If the GM does something like this but targets a specific character (such as by bringing in their nemesis), then that should be a dramatic compel of that character, and pay out appropriately.

Mechanically, these compels will usually be reflected with either the addition of a new aspect on the scene, or by rewriting an existing aspect.

There are a couple practical things this does:

  • It allows the GM to keep the scene dynamic without requiring NPCs to do strange Create Advantage rolls or similar.
  • At the same time, it keeps the amount of changes bounded by the GM budget.
  • It gives a little more potential life to the various aspects that players tend to create on a scene in order to get free invokes, then forget about. Players will be careful to make sure they’re not things the GM can easily use, but if the GM is able to spend to create consequences and results of those aspects, then there’s a lot more room for organic action.

Sidebar: Consequence Countdowns

This is not actually relevant to this discussion, but here’s a tool that has some situational use (with credit to Blades in the Dark which this is derived from) – the GM may opt to add a track (like a stress track) to an aspect she creates (either in framing the scene or that he creates later) as a signifier that this aspect is going somewhere. What leads to checking off boxes is situational, but might include:

  • When the aspect is invoked/compelled
  • When a particular NPC takes an action
  • As a consequence of “Success, but…” or similar rolls.

There might be ways for players to uncheck boxes too. Again totally situational. Whatever the case, when the last box is checked, the aspect “flips”, and becomes its consequence. Effectively it’s a scene compel that the GM doesn’t need to pay for because she provided advance warning and an opportunity to react.

Examples might include an alarm which flips into reinforcements arriving, or a fire that flips into the building collapsing.

As presented, this is an open ended tool for the GM to use whenever she likes, which is all a high trust table needs. There are absolutely ways to mechanize this to make it more constrained, but I’m not going to dive into those now, because this is already a total tangent from the topic at hand.

How Many Scene Fate Points?

There are a ton of ways you could figure out the right answer to this question, and I encourage experimentation. However, I’m very lazy, so I use a simple rule of thumb. Start with X scene fate points where X is the number of players (not including myself). The scene budget is X for most scenes, 2x for scenes that seem more interesting and 3x for big scenes (finales and such). If I’m not sure how interesting a scene is, I check how many aspects I’ve written up in framing it. That tends to roughly correspond with the multiplier.

Named NPCs may also have their own reserve of Scene Fate Points. Ideally it would be something like X, tied explicitly to that NPC and used over the course of a session when necessary. In practice, that is more bookkeeping than I’m likely to do, so if I am doing this, I tend to just add half an X to the scene if there’s a named NPC.

Narrating from Knowledge

This was an unplanned tweetstorm this morning, but it’s practical enough that it’s worth turning into a proper post.

TL;DR – when you narrate in blades, include all the information that the characters would have gotten if they’d asked all the smart questions and done all the smart research. We are playing to see what they do with that information, not to watch them flail around finding it.

When you’re running (or playing) Blades in the Dark, narration should come from a place of knowledge.

That is simple, but maybe not obvious, so let me unpack what that means.  In most games you will use descriptive narration, telling players what they see and sense. If they want further information, they can take action as characters (investigate, poking around) or ask questions as players.  This back and forth is part of how players engage a situation, and for many games this is fine.

Blades is a bit different in two ways.  First, it is very rare that the question is whether the crew will succeed, and is instead about how they will succeed (and what may happen as a result).  Second, the flashback mechanism offers entirely different ways to engage these scenes.  These differences call for a difference in approach – specifically, they reward giving more information when narrating.

So, rather than provide a purely descriptive narration, consider an informed narration – one that expands upon the description with context and information, as if the listener were well informed on the topic.  See, in Blades – on a job in particular – the assumption is that characters have done their due diligence and legwork, so when an element is introduced, the narrator can reflect that with an “as you know, Bob…”, albeit cooler.

So, for example, if my crew were to come upon a door in a classic game, I might say:

The door is imposing and conveys a clear message of “no”.  Heavy black wood, thick bronze bands and an ornate, sophisticated lock all make it cleat that this door is not interested in letting you past.

And that’s fine, so far as it goes.  They can start digging in.  But for blades, I would start with that and add something like:

The wood is treated ironwood: fireproof and hard enough to dull anything but specialized tools, imported from the south at significant expense. The lock’s a Wilson and Finch 9 tumbler job with an etheric snap back mechanism which has three keys, one held by the mark, one by his chief of security and one in the W&F offices.

Now, I’m giving two kinds of information here.  Some of this is information that could be sussed out by asking questions (or, depending on the game, maybe making knowledge rolls), and providing that without the players asking serves a couple purposes, but most critically it shows the players and their characters  a degree of respect and circumvents the possibility that they might ask the “wrong” questions.  That kind of generosity is useful in many games.

The other kind of information is contextual.  Where the wood comes from, what the status of the keys are and details about the lock are things that could not be determined within the scene, so providing them seems counterintuitive to the usual RPG model – it might even feel overly narrative or storytelling-ish.  However, it’s much less grandiose than that – it is a way to reflect the legwork that the characters did offscreen without forcing them to keep extensive notes.  Just assuming the know this stuff is both practical and respectful.

But that’s not all – this also very explicitly provides hooks for flashbacks.  As narrator, I am communicating several possible elements that might inspire players to hang a flashback off.  Now, players are creative, and they may not need these hooks, or they may ignore the hooks I offer entirely in favor of their own, and that’s fine, but by offering them I prime the pump.

Not only does this make life easier for my players, it makes life easier for me.  When I don’t have time to think up a really interesting job, or when the circumstances surrounding a job dictate that it’s probably short and simple, a few richly narrated details can unspool into a lot of very satisfying play by moving play into the flashbacks.  The job itself could be quite short, but the play experience very satisfying if enough engagement happens in the flashbacks.

If you’re looking for tips on how to do this, look to the source fiction.  Capers and espionage stories, especially movies and TV, are awash with well-informed narrators.  This might take the form of a mission briefing voiceover while the action is taking place, or it might take the form of editorial observations from the protagonist.  I’m a huge fan of Burn Notice which is a great example of the latter  type.   Find a voice and style you like, and think about how a scene would be described in that context.

Now, none of this is obligatory.  Blades runs just fine if you do it straight, so this is not something to stress about.  But it’s a powerful tool in your toolbox, and I definitely encourage trying it out.

Sidebar: All this is for players too.  If your GM doesn’t give you hooks to hang flashbacks on, then that is an invitation to create them.  This doesn’t require a full narration or story, just your own little bit of Burn Notice voiceover and you’re off to the races!

Trigger Tables

Quick post, because I used the term “Trigger Tables” to describe something and while I knew exactly what I meant, I realized there wasn’t actually anything to point to for it.

The idea is not new – you’ve seen it in lots of adventures. It’s a simple table where there is some value that is tracked (alertness, threat, whatever) and a description of what happens as a result. So, for example, let’s say we’re doing a game around uncovering a ruined city, with dungeon-crawling interspersed with logistics and town building.  As part of this, we keep track of an “Uncovered” Score that is sort of a general metric for the state of how much of the ancient city has been uncovered.  How exactly the uncovered score ticks up is not super important – could be clocks, could be tracks, could be in-game events, could be it’s own minigame of Dig-Dug for all that it matters.

Then, as the GM, I have a table among my notes that looks like this:

table with escalating outcomes from 1-10

To reiterate – this is not a new or complicated idea.  You’ve seen it before, I promise.  I’m mostly writing about it here so I have something to call it because much like clocks/tracks and encounter tables, this is an insanely robust (and often underused) technology.  It can work just as well when the thing being tracked can go up and down as it can when it’s ratcheting up (as in the example).  It can be used for things as small as the state of a dungeon or business, or for things as big as the events of a campaign.   Hell, take a page from Shadow of the Demon Lord and make one of these tables for your character’s level progression, and you have the skeleton of a campaign right there.

So, like clocks, these are flexible.  Like encounter tables, they imply a lot about the game in an easily communicated/transmitted fashion.  Trigger tables are fun tech, and well worth taking advantage of.