Monthly Archives: December 2018

Favors in the Dark

As I work on the Grifters writeup, I occasionally get sidetracked into a pair of other gang playbooks that mostly exist in my head, one for artists, the other for revolutionaries. Both of those other playbacks really appeal to me as things to play, but they suffer from one key disconnect with Blades – the question of how to get paid.

This is not an insurmountable challenge. Revolutionaries can steal from The Man. Artists can make sales. But for me, that ends up feeling a little bit wrong. For most crews, making money is the underlying focus of activity, but for crews with a different motive (which may also include cults) the centrality of money to the system can end up hurting the feel of things.

Most specifically, it discourages crews from making a ruckus. That is, if you have a crew of rabble rousers and you want to do something dramatic and awesome but not-necessarily profitable, the system will steer you away from that. I don’t fault the design for that – it’s a harsh setting, and it supports an idea that idealists still need to eat. I genuinely get that, but sometimes the rejection of the idea that everything comes down to cash is the point.

So, to that end I have a very simple fix that has room to be a slightly more complicated fix for those who are so inclined, and that solution is favors.

Favors are another form of currency which can be earned as part of a job (or by other means) and are largely interchangeable with coin. When coin could be spent, favors can be spent instead (with caveats). Effectively, favors are a parallel currency, with only a few special rules:

  • Favors may not be used to increase the tier of your crew. That takes real money.
  • When a favor is used, an NPC must be named as the person providing the favor. No further detail is required, and the NPC may be an existing one or a new one, so long as it makes sense. There is no explicit mechanical hook to this, but it’s potentially useful information.
  • Favors can be gained by the crew or by individual members, and can be given by members to the crew, but once they go to the crew, that’s where they stay. (They’re still usable, so no biggee, this is just to prevent weird favor laundering.)
  • The Crew may only hold a maximum number of favors equal to the number of crew members. Any extras must be used immediately (by the end of the current/next downtime) or go to waste.
  • An individual crewmember may hold a number of favors equal to their Consort.
  • A favor may be spend by a player to justify a scene with an NPC. It gives no real authority beyond framing who the scene is with – where it happens and how well it’s received is on the NPC – but it gets the door open.[1]

Optional Rules

Crew Upgrade: Ironclad Reputation – Double the crew’s capacity to hold favors.

Crew Upgrade: Sterling Reputation – Triple the crew’s capacity to hold favors. Requires and replaces Ironclad reputation.

Slide Special Ability: Everybody’s Friend – Once per downtime, you can spend a downtime action working your network, doing favors and earning favors. Make a Consort roll. 1-3 Nothing happens, 4-5 Earn 1 favor, 6 Earn 2 Favors, Crit Earn 3.

Spider Special Ability: Favor Broker – Once per downtime, you may spend a favor to give another crewmember an additional downtime action. Doing so does not expend the favor.

Whisper Special Ability: Everything Bargains – Your favors extend to and from ghosts, demons and almost anything else. When you name an NPC or justify a scene, you are not bound to mere humanity.

Advance Rules: Named Favors

If one REALLY wants to, it is entirely possible to associate favors with NPCs when they’re handed out. This means that rather than just use generic favors, each favor is tied to a named NPC, and get handed out like “Black Andrea:2” or “The Ink Rakes:1” meaning Black Andrea owes me two favors and the Ink Rakes owe me 1.

This is a pretty compelling thought. It constrains the spending of favors somewhat (because the logic of who “owns” the favor influences how it’s used) but it makes the named NPCs that much more important and engageable. It also makes the favors a bot more concrete – there is no guarantee you’ll get a favor again after you spend it, so you need to think a little bit about whether it’s worth it to burn a valuable favor (because one other upshot of this is that some favors definitely ARE more valuable than others). And if an NPC owes you a lot of favors, you might be a little more invested in their well being.

However, this also calls for a level of bookkeeping that is kind of at odds with Blades in general. This is inventory management, and we don’t go for that kind of stuff here. So while I’ll share a few more bullets on how you handle this, I’m going to say that all in all I recommend against it, but if you really like the idea, then go for it.

So, that said, the tweaks you’ll make:

  • Maximum amounts are unchanged. The reduced flexibility of named favors is offset by their increased applicability and potential potency.
  • In addition to other uses, named favors can be spent for actual favors within the wheelhouse of the favor target. Usually in the form of “do this” or “don’t do this”. This is a favor, not authority, so how far someone will go depends a lot on how close to their comfort zone they are. When in doubt, if the character asks for this use of the favor and are declined (GM’s call), that does not expend the favor.

Advance Rule: Taking on Debt

Suppose your character really needs a favor but has none. You have the option of owing someone a favor in order to gain the benefit of a favor. This will usually happen during downtime, but it could come up in play or as a result of a devil’s bargain.

When taking on a debt, the character immediately gains and spends the favor (including naming the NPC) for whatever they needed to accomplish. Then then mark a “-“ wherever they track favors to note the debt.

  • Debt may be accrued by the character or the Crew. Any member of the crew may accrue debt on the Crew’s behalf.
  • Each “-“ occupies a slot of favor capacity, so the character or crew can hold one less favor for each debt they carry.
  • At any point, an NPC may attempt to call in the marker and ask the character or crew to do something. The NPC may be the one named, or it may be someone else. If the characters or crew do it, then the debt is cleared.
  • If they choose NOT to do it, the debt increases (becoming two minuses and so on). This means it occupies more favor capacity, and if this pushes over capacity, favors are lost.
  • The NPC will eventually return and ask another favor, and saying yes will clear the books (and saying no will deepen the debt) but they will probably ask for something more severe each time.
  • If turning down a favor would push a character past their favor capacity, the debt (all of it) rolls over to the crew instead (pushing out any favors they may be holding as appropriate). If turning down a favor would push the crew past their favor capacity, each point of overage is taken from crew rep. If the crew has no rep, it’s added to heat.
  • If you’re using Named Favors, then debt is also named, with all that that entails. One warning – the death of the person you owe might clear your debt, but there are no guarantees.

Anyway. This might get sidebarred into Grifters, but it’s not really a match there, so I figured I’d just share it here.

1 – (Very annoyed that my editor of choice has decided to stop auto-formatting my footnotes). So, technically this means that your crew could spend one favor for an audience with the Immortal Emperor. If this bugs you, then increase the cost of this action by the tier difference between the crew and the target. But if, like me, you hear this and think “Oh, yes, you should *definitely* do that” with an evil smile, then absolutely leave the rule as is.

A Thought on Crunch

Cover of the book “Thinking Fast And Slow”Ok, I have a new theory of crunch.

Kahneman & Tversky did a whole lot of super smart writing about how we think, and one of the takeaways is that we have two main modes of thinking, system 1 and system 2. There’s a great book on this (Thinking Fast And Slow) that sold a ton of copies, and some Nobel prizes floating around, so this is a pretty commonly known model, not some weird fringe thing, so bear with me a moment.

System 1 is Fast, automatic and intuitive. It’s what we use most of the time to just function in the world to walk, talk and generally interact. System 2 is slower and used for reason and analytics. Our thinking is generally dominated by system 1, but we engage system 2 when we’re forced to by circumstances, such as high stakes situations or problems that we lack heuristics for.

The part that is weird about this is that system 1 is really capable. It’s easy to imagine it as just sort of dumb autonomic stuff, but the reality is that it can do a LOT, and it’s super good at creating narratives to make everything around you make sense. System 2 is what we tend to think of as thinking, but it kicks in less often than we think.

Lots of implications to this and stuff that’s way smarter than anything I have to say, but I was thinking about it recently and considering the prospect that a lot of the System 1 stuff sounds similar to what some people enjoy about gaming (flow, creating narrative and so on) and that when they talk about the game just “getting out of the way” that seem consistent with the game being a system 1 operation. On the other hand, there are plenty of games and players where the enjoyment seems to be explicitly in engaging system 2 (for complicated problem solving and so on).

And I think that has given me a new handle to think about what “crunch” means – it’s system 2 play.

This feels very satisfying to me because it embraces the fact that there is no bright line distinguishing crunch from the alternative – rather, it is a function of comfort and familiarity. If you learn a system well enough for it to require less thought (allowing System 1 to do the lifting) then you stop needing system 2 for it, and it stops being crunchy.

It also makes it make a little bit more sense, because some people enjoy system 1 play, but not system 2. Some enjoy system 2 but not system 1. Some enjoy both. That maps to my experience of how people end up enjoying games (and how they end up complaining about crunch or about other things).

Now, there are some odd gaps to this. Some of the other things that can trigger system 2 are emotional, and I’m not sure how the intersection of that and FEELINGS larps works into the model, but I also don’t have a good model for those in general, so I just flag it and move on.

Anyway, I’m not sure if this is a useful perspective, but I definitely intend to try it out for a while and see how it goes.

Who Would Win

As a result of my niece’s interest, I am now playing the first Danganronpa game. I admit, I had not been previously aware of this series (It’s a video game, and there have been several), and while I’m only a little bit in, I’m hooked. It’s sort of a character-driven-visual-story-puzzler-mystery full of anime tropes with a layer of weirdness. Which is to say, it’s very much to my taste.

I may talk more about the game itself later, but a thing that’s fascinating me about it is that part of the premise is that each character is the “ultimate” something (ultimate pop star, ultimate martial artist, ultimate programmer and so on). It’s a key part of the fiction, but it’s an idea that kind of intrigues me from a game perspective.

One of the key truths of comic books is that the fans love the question of which character would win a fight. Old hands and writers roll their eyes and explain that it depends on who is writing. And that’s true, as far as it goes, but that overlooks a lot of assumptions about the characters and writing.

Yes, it is entirely possible for a writer to insert a Squirrel Girl beats Thanos victory and it’s a thing that happens, but that is not an answer to the instinct that drives the question, it’s an active snub. This is fine if you’re paid to write comics, but works less well for GMs.

What people asking that question are looking for (besides validation of their favs) is a satisfying answer, which is to say one which is consistent with the characters and the stories as they understand them (and their opinions on the “right” answer are usually expressions of their understanding.

To make that concrete, if Batman beats Superman because he had a clever plan that leveraged Superman’s weaknesses, then that’s satisfying because it’s true to both characters, and tells us something about them both. If Batman beats Superman because he’s been bitten by a kryptonian werewolf and temporarily is more powerful than Supes, then that’s a valid story but a deeply unsatisfying answer because it isn’t about the characters.

These may seem like disconnected threads, so let me pull them back together – that idea of a satisfying resolution is an essential part of almost any GM decision about character capability, because that is what the player is looking for when we talk about respecting a character’s capability.

Which brings me back to those “Ultimates” from Danganronpa. In simplest game terms, each of them has an arena where they are guaranteed to win any conflict, and a penumbra of related things where they are likely very capable.

Resolving their ultimates is easy to resolve, but the penumbra is where things get interesting. To come back to Batman & Superman, there is a reason the question is “who would win?”, not “Who can lift more?”. The easy question introduces no tension. I look at two characters in this show and I wonder how a conflict (social, physical, mental, whatever) between them would resolve and how I’d model that in a game.

And the thing that it reveals to me is that the winner is the uninteresting part of the question, and that the key is what this shows about the character.

Sorry for the rambling nature of this one – I’m wrestling with some thoughts about what dice are FOR, and this all feeds into it.

The Size of Success

Action result table from Talislantia 4e

It is impossible to overstate how much modern game design rests on ripping off John Harper, Clinton Dreisbach and Jared Sorensen

The most basic resolution is binary: Success/Failure.

Ok, that may be a lie. The most basic resolution is NULL/Success, which is to say either it succeeds or it never happens in the first place. Consider how conflicts are “resolved” in chess – it just happens. The only way for it not to happen is for the move to not be made.1 For the moment though, let’s start with the binary.

Now, we play games of the imagination, so binary outcomes are a bit of a ham-fisted tool. There is a natural gravity towards some larger number of options, but also a limiter imposed by complexity. It is fairly trivial to generate an arbitrary number of outcomes (a d20 can have 20 outcomes, after all) but it is much harder for them to be genuinely meaningful.

So game designs seek to thread that needle, and pick a path between those options. Or in some cases, outside of them. The first expansion on this was a 4 step model – Critical Failure, Failure, Success and Critical Success. This covers a decent range of options, but its assumption that critical are outliers makes it less flexible than it might otherwise be. That is, if critical happen enough to be part of regular usage, then they don’t feel like criticals.

The next step is to unpack that space between success and critical success, and the most common tool for that is some sort of margin of success system, where the amount that the effort succeeds by has a mechanical effect. This is nicely elegant – better rolls yield better results, which feels very intuitive. Unfortunately, it also tends to make scale a bit difficult to explain, since it often ends up a bit open ended (especially if the system has something like exploding dice). Saying 7 successes is what it takes to shoot a horsefly in a hurricane is great, but only if your system genuinely makes 7 successes that uncommon.

I note here that Green Robin’s AGE system struck a very nice balance here with a kind of light critical system where a better than average success gives currency to do cool things, but the effect is bounded.

The other possible approach is to expand the space between success and failure with a marginal or modified success. The idea is old, but I first encountered this in it’s explicit form in Talislantia 4e (coughJohnHarpercough) but nowadays it’s most easily recognized as the 7-9 result in Powered by the Apocalypse games. Of course, that can even be expanded to produce qualified successes and mitigated failures.

The thing is, we’re now up to a pretty wide spread of possible results on the dice:

  • Critical Failure
  • Failure
  • Mitigated Failure
  • Qualified Success
  • Success
  • Better success
  • Critical Success

There’s a pretty obvious linguistic spread here

  • Critical Failure (No, AND)
  • Failure (No)
  • Mitigated Failure (No, BUT)
  • Qualified Success (Yes, BUT)
  • Success (Yes)
  • Better success (Yes, AND)
  • Critical Success (WOO HOO!!!)

I’ll admit here, this would be more symmetrical without better success, or if I added a “worse failure” option, but I’m not sure how much fun there is in that. Critical failures can be fun as turns of dumb luck, and make for good stories, but worse-than-normal failures seem like they would be a punitive addition. On the flip side, having some space between success and critical success tends to allow a little more mechanical breathing room for cool tricks in system. As such, I’m ok with a little asymmetry.

But here comes the key question – the one I’m not 100% sure of the answer of. Is that too many outcomes? What is the right number of outcomes?

I don’t think there’s an answer for this, but I think there’s an interesting pointer to be found in thinking about it, because it reveals the question of how you’re going to use the outcomes.

That is, if you are providing these outcomes as guidelines for GM interpretation, then it’s probably close to the right number. It provides prompts that allow for most of the kinds of outcomes that make sense in fiction, so it’s just a matter of wrapping some guidelines around those tiers.

But if I was developing a more explicit system, one where the meaning of those outcomes all needed to be expressed as rules (think PBTA Moves), then this many result tiers could be cumbersome. I don’t want to have to write up that long a list for every single possible situation.

If I’m doing something in between – a system that MOSTLY resolves things one way, but has some explicit outcomes, then it gets a bit more subjective. For example, I might have a system that uses the same rules most of the time, but each skill has a different rule for critical success. In that case, it’s going to be much more of a judgement call.

So, there’s a perfectly reasonable case for fewer outcomes, but is there a case for more?

I admit, I used to think so. Ideally, I imagined outcomes as a subtle gradient between extremes, rich in nuance and interpretation. In practice, I have found that I simply do not have the creative juice to distinguish between every 7 and 8 on a d20 roll, and that I fall into roughly the distribution I outline above.

I’m not sure how useful any of this is, but it does reveal something to me about my tastes. See, that ladder of outcomes I like is VERY CLOSE to the ladder I internalized for diceless play from the Amber DRPG, which gave guidance in terms of running fights where the character was:

  • Vastly Outclassed
  • Outclassed
  • Moderately Outclassed
  • On Par
  • Slightly Superior
  • Superior
  • Vastly Superior

And in my heart of hearts, I think that is what I’m striving for. For a host of reasons, not the least of which being how strongly it centers characters.

But where this gets interesting, for me, is that if this diceless distribution is what I’m really looking for, then what are dice really bringing to the table?

I have an answer, but at this point, that’s probably another post. 🙂

  1. Curiously, this mode is quite applicable to RPGs, and resonates with the argument against the addition of skills to old school games (“no one fell off a horse until we added a riding skill”). Functionally, every game with any amount of GM interpretation leans on this resolution model for almost every point where the system is not engaged (aka Common Sense). This is a pretty rich topic on its own, but also tangential to the topic on hand. ↩︎

Post Pax

I am back from Pax Unplugged 2018 and I am exhausted. I had a really good time, but my thoughts are a bit of a jumble, so I’m going to try to pin them down.

  • I intended to attend several panels, but missed every single one that I had scheduled, usually because I was playing something. This is a good reason to miss things, but was a bit of a bummer.
  • In fact, all of my time was spent either walking the floor or playing games. I discovered in retrospect that there were entire parts of the convention (including the RPG area) because I had no idea they were there, and there was nothing in particular pushing me in that direction.
  • Since I didn’t see the actual RPG focused area, I put a pin in my sense that this is not a great RPG con. It’s got G.O.D. and stuff, so it’s not like it’s not an RPG con, but my experience was generally so crowded and loud that while playing boardgames was fine, I suspect I would go insane trying to roleplay. But it’s possible there’s some secret sauce I missed out on.
  • This was a terrible con for seeing and talking to people. I imagine it’s better for the folks who have the leeway to do late night hanging out, but during the day there is such a press of humanity in constant motion that the prospect of stopping to talk is daunting. Meals offer no respite in this – while not as bad as last year, you need to go some distance (or be willing to pay more) to find a usable social space.
  • There were some obvious improvements from last year: the aisles in the dealer hall were numbered, for one thing, and there was even more space to play. It felt like they kept pace with the growth, which is good, but I’m not sure it made for an overall improvement. There’s still a lot of cattle call to it, though.
  • It remains a line culture con. I do not criticize that, but I do need to make my peace with it.
  • It took a while to find the boardgame library, because the play area was so large, and we never ended up using it because we had games and it was constantly swamped. That maybe sounds like a complaint, but it’s not – there was a HUGE play area which was constantly at capacity with a constantly churning game library. There was SO MUCH PLAY. It was beautiful.
  • This may seem weird, but I kind of feel like I could have skipped Saturday. Friday was busy, but there was some NEW STUFF energy that was fun. Sunday was also busy, but less so, and it meant that there was actually time and space to get demos and try things out that had not really been an option. But Saturday was all knife fight. Walking the floor was slow and overcrowded, and finding any workable space was a chore. Thinking towards the future, I may see what I can do to route around it.
  • This is the second year of the con and the second year I brought my son. I am pretty sure that some of my experience was skewed by this – I probably would have seen more people if I was solo, for example, because I would have had a little more flex (and have been out later). He had an awesome time, but at least part of that is because my wife took him to The Franklin Institute for a big chunk of Saturday, sparing him the worst of the overstimulation. I honestly am not sure how good an idea this is as a kids con – people are great and he had a great time, but the sheer press of people worries me a bit.
  • I was fairly restrained in my purchases until the final floor walk on Sunday, when the combination of “we don’t want to take this home” sales and my son making big eyes for robot-fighting games demolished my resolve.

It was a good time. No question. And I have every intention of going again next year. But I fully concede that a big part of the decision is the fact that it’s just over two hours from home, which makes travel inexpensive and easy. If it were farther away, I’m not sure it would be worth the trip. But it’s also possible that once I’m past this initial wave of exhaustion, I’ll feel much better about it.