Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

Persona and Mage

A while back, on the strength of great reviews, a delightful trailer and the promised of capers, I picked up an played Persona 5 on the PS4 (my primary video game console) and I loved it. Loved it loved it loved it. It is amazing how many of my buttons it hit. It had capers and style, but it also had time management and fun characters and entertaining dungeon crawls and great pacing and and and…

So I liked it. I liked it enough that I borrowed a copy of Persona 4 from a friend, and ended up enjoying it enough that I bought my own player. I also may have watched all the available anime.

I liked that enough that I dusted off my PS3 to install the PS2 emulated version of Persona 31 and despite the fact that it was a little bit of a pain in the ass (and the age of the game was showing) I enjoyed the hell out of that.

I am unlikely to go back much further. The technical limitations of the older games and the hoops I need to jump through to get them playing outstrip the benefits of just watching them on YouTube. I’m ok with that – these are now thoroughly embedded in my personal canon.

Obviously, I’ve put some thought into mapping them to RPGs. It would not be hard to capture their gameplay structurally by starting from Blades in the Dark – crew-centric, mission based play is right in the sweet spot, and it would just need tools for social links and dungeon crawling, which would not be a huge lift.

But despite that, the game that I have found myself thinking about when I get to the end of each of these is Mage: the Ascension.

Now, Mage is a fascinating game which is hard to talk about because by it’s nature, everyone who played mage played a different version of the game. Because the nature of the game was about the manipulation of subjective reality and the rules were designed to support anything, the game tended to be about whatever slice of that was most exciting to a particular group.2

For all that, the most fascinating part of Mage to me was the part it probably did least well.

So, in Mage, there’s an underlying, true reality which mages can understand and manipulate, and it’s represented by the various “spheres” (like death, life, mind, entropy etc.) that make up the building blocks of an experienced universe and which are also the mechanical components that drive the magic system.

But, fiction-wise, you don’t just jump to that understanding. That’s the underlying truth, but there are numerous magical traditions that lead to power, but are incomplete in their understanding. On paper, the arc of a mage in Mage is to discover power through, say, Hermetic Secrets, and use that power for a while before eventually reaching an understanding of the meta-truth behind everything (and then, with subsequent splats, to discover the meta-meta-truth, but that’s less interesting to me).

The problem, and I use the term loosely, was that the meta-truth was laid out very clearly to players and was essential to the workings of the system, so there was very little incentive to spend any time in that space of incomplete understanding excepting any point where the mechanics demanded it.3

To unpack a little, the Mage sphere system could be used to mechanically model almost any in-fiction effect. This was awesome, no question. And it meant if you started from fiction that you wanted to shoot a lightning bolt from your hand, you could determine that that was a Forces:3 effect, and you had all the mechanics you needed, and if you had Forces:3 on your sheet. And that’s great, but on your sheet you had “Forces:3” so it was easier (and more beneficial) to think in terms of “what can I do with my 3 dots of forces?”

None of these things were bad, but they pushed Mage into the meta game pretty fast unless you forcibly dragged it back. Whether that’s a bug or feature depended what you were shooting for.

Which brings us back to Persona. In each Persona game, it is revealed that there is a deeper layer of reality that most people cannot perceive, but which contains both power and threats which impact the real world and can be used by some handful of beings who have the awareness. It also suggests that there’s a deeper layer still, which the protagonist accesses, and the arc of the protagonists journey (which is the journey through the Major Arcana) involves a lot of monster fights, but also represents an arc that ends in deeper understanding of the true nature of the world.4

This delights me to no end, and is a big part of the reason that when I finish a Persona game, I kind of feel like I’ve just finished the best session 0 of a Mage game that I could possibly imagine.

  1. For the nerds who know enough to ask: I played Persona 4 Golden and Personal 3 FES. On 3, I completed The Journey, but I admit I just watched a YouTube of The Answer because there’s a reason I don’t play Dark Souls. ↩︎
  2. In contrast, Mage: The Awakening is much more about the things Mage said it was about, which is exactly why it was not Mage in many people’s eyes, so make of it what you will. I note, I really liked Awakening a lot, but it’s a different beast.
    ↩︎
  3. Mage 2e did a lot of things which, I think, had the intent of making this intermediate step more prominent, but at that point the genie was out of the bottle, so it felt punitive. Curiously, I would also argue that this is part of what made Technocracy stuff more playable because the Technocracy are more strictly tied to their model of the universe, because that’s rather the point. ↩︎
  4. This is more obvious in 4 and 5 – hell, 5 ends with with protagonist looking directly at the player. 3 is thematically similar but, of course, has a somewhat different arc. ↩︎

Selling Failure

Poker ChipsI’ve been running games a little bit for my 9 year old son lately, and it is forcing me to look more closely at a lot of my ideas around failure in play.  I am absolutely a believer in using failure as a tool to move things forward, and that well handled failure can make a game much more satisfying for everyone involved.

Then I tried to explain that to a 9 year old boy.

He gets the idea in theory, but in practice, he is super loss averse.  This is a challenge if we want to use any system that incorporates failure usefully, and that’s what’s gotten me thinking about a lot of things.

One of them was whether I could get him to buy into failure as an option.  I had a fruitful conversation about this on Twitter, and Morgan Ellis got me thinking about the utility of rewards for failure being good enough to make it intrinsically appealing.   Thinking that through led to a very simple system as follows.

  • Players starts with N (say, 10) white chips and 1 black chip.
  • GM has a supply of white, red and blue chips
  • When a player wants to make a declaration that something is true, it costs a chip.  White for small things, red for larger things, blue for big deals.
  • When a player faces a challenge (its own topic, roll with it), the GM lays out a poker chip.
    • Chip is white, red or blue, representing increasing degrees of significance
    • To proceed, player must also lay down a chip.  That chip is spent(lost).
    • Black chip is a concession. It always loses, but returns to the player.
    • If the player matches or exceed’s the GM’s chip, they win (whatever that means)
    • If the player fails, they gain the GM’s chip

There’s room for a lot more wrapped around this – specific mechanical things that red & blue chips can do, other ways to earn white chips and so on, but at its heart this is a failure engine, since failure is the only way to get red and blue chips, which are powerful and useful.  I’m curious how my son will react to it.

My fear (and my wife’s expectation) is that the kid won’t like it.  This would work great for players who have already bought into failure as awesome, but this isn’t going to sell it.  There’s a decent chance she’s right, but the good news is that it’s going to be very easy to test.

Risks

Image illustrating the risks which have just been described in the text.

I’m going to make an assumption at this point that as a GM, you’ve got a pretty solid grasp on success and failure. You understand that failure should not stop play, and that you should only turn to the dice to determine success and failure when both outcomes are interesting and fun to play. So what we’re going to talk about that other stuff that surrounds success and failure – specifically we’re going to talk about risk.

In this context, the risks of a situation are the things that could obviously go wrong, but which do not necessarily make success more or less likely. For example, if a character wants to kick down a door1, there is a risk that it will make enough noise alert the guards. This risk has no impact on the action, but it has a profound impact on the situation.

When games take risks into account, they often simply fold them into the difficulty of the roll, and assume success to mean the risks have been addressed, and draw upon the risks in the case of failure. More nuanced games, fold the risks into ideas like partial success or success with consequence, so there’s a middle tier of results between success and failure.

While I can’t pretend to cover the entire range of possible risks in play in one post, I would suggest th

at there are a handful of risk types which you will see over and over again. They are:

Cost: The most straightforward of risks is as simple as a price, usually in the form of lost resources.

Harm: Equally classic, winning but taking an injury is an iconic example of success at a cost.

Revelation: The acting character reveals some piece of information, whether it be a clue or their location.

Confusion: The acting character conveys something other than intended, creating opportunities for upset, bad timing, offense or more dangerous misunderstanding.

Waste: Functionally, this is akin to cost, but where cost is intentionally, waste is the result of misapplication of resources.

Ineffectiveness: Hitting the target may not mean knocking it down. A success without follow through may end up reaping limited (or no) rewards.

Spillover: Alternately, sometimes the problem comes from too much effort – fragile things break, pieces no longer fit, people are annoyed and other results of overkill can all be problems.

Delay: Sometimes things will just take longer than intended.

 

(This list is almost certainly not comprehensive, and I’m 100% open to suggestions for additions.)

Now, this list is very useful to a GM who is looking at a situation and thinking “ok, what might the risks be here?”. Running down a simple checklist is an easy prompt to the self to consider potential options before the dice hit the table. But, critically, almost no situation will call for all risks. If there’s no one watching, there’s no much risk of a reveal. If there’s no hurry, then delay is not much of a risk. This is not a problem – that different situations have different risks is a feature because risks drive player behavior.

That is to say, risks impact how characters approach a problem, and they provide an avenue of action and play that grows naturally out of the success and failure that are already afoot in your game. Two mechanically identical rolls can feel drastically different when presented with different risk profiles. That benefit is so profound that we’re starting today with laying the groundwork on thinking of risks as something distinct from difficulties.

Risks and Approaches

(This bit is fairly FAE Specific, but some of it can be more broadly re-used).

I love Fate Accellerated, but I think it’s generally understood that there are times when the question of which approach to use becomes more of an exercise in mechanics than fiction, which rather misses the point of using FAE in the first place. I’ve written about a few other ways to approach the problem of how to make it matter which approach someone choose, but I think the real secret sauce lies in risks, with one simple trick of perspective:

Approaches are less about success and failure than they are about mitigating risk.

Ok, maybe that sounds weird, but work with me here. Straight success is not hard to pull off in FAE, even with a ‘weak’ approach. Difficulties aren’t super high2, and aspects provide a lot of extra oomph when needed. But for all that, there is still incentive to explain why everything you do it clever and therefor gets your +3 bonus.

But suppose you looked at that list of risks as the inverse of approaches. Remove cost and harm – they’re always on the table as the situation demands it – but the rest line up suspiciously well.

If you are not quick then you risk delay.

If you are not clever, you risk waste

If you are not forceful, you risk ineffectiveness

If you are not flashy, you risk miscommunication

If you are not sneaky, you risk revelation

If you are not careful, you risk overkill

That is to say, the choice of approach can be a reasonable response to risk. In play, this means that the right choice of approach can nullify a risk.

Illustrated set of which approaches counter which risks

Ok, that’s all well and good in theory, how does that look in play?

So, mechanically, when the GM looks at a situation in play, it should have one or more risks (if there are no risks, then definitely question why there’s a roll at all), and set difficulty, with the reminder that 0 is a totally reasonable difficulty. Then add the following 2 twists: First, every 2 points over the difficulty can cancel out a risk (if it makes sense). This makes for a sort of proxy difficulty increase with automatic success-with-consequence. Second, the approach chosen cancels out any appropriate risk.

To go back to the door example: Finn needs to get through a door to escape pursuit. It’s locked, and the guards are in pursuit, so it’s time to kick it open. It’s not a super robust door, and the GM is comfortable with a difficulty of 1, so she does a quick audit of potential risks:

Cost or Harm aren’t really in play directly, but they’re always on the table when things go pear shaped.

Waste isn’t much of a concern. There are no points for neatness in door kicking.

Delay on the other hand is a problem. If this takes too long, the guards may catch up.

Miscommunication isn’t really a concern, since ideally there’s no audience.

Revelation is borderline – the GM could say that one of the risks is that the guards will know which door Finn went out. However, he’s going to break down a door, so they’ll probably be able to figure it out however the roll goes, so the question is more whether they’ll find him soon enough to matter. From that perspective, this shades into the territory we’re already covering with the risk of delay, so the GM lets this one slide.

Overkill is almost certainly not a problem

Ineffectiveness, on the other hand, really would be. He cannot afford to be dainty here. But despite that, this merits a little thought too – the consequence of ineffectiveness is also that the guards catch up, so is it really that different? Wouldn’t ineffectiveness really map to failure in this case? Those are reasonable concerns, but they also need to be balanced against the sensibilities of the moment and the fact that the GM has already been generous about Revelation, and this feels right. However, double dipping on the guards catching up is unfair, so instead she considers the door not quite breaking all the way and him having to squeeze though, probably leaving some loot behind.3

So with that in mind, the GM figures the situation has risks of delay and ineffectiveness one top of the +1 difficulty. If he succeeds, he’ll get out through the door, but there’s a risk that the guards will be in hot pursuit if he takes too long, or he may have to leave some loot behind if he can’t kick the door all the way open.

In terms of pure math, this suggests a fairly large number of options:

If Finn tries to be quick (nullifying delay):

  • On less than 1, he fails, and has some guards to fight
  • 1-2: He manages to squeeze out the door but leaves some loot behind.
  • 3+: He kicks the door open dramatically and runs out onto the street.

If Finn tries to be forceful (nullifying ineffective):

  • On less than 1, he fails, and has some guards to fight
  • 1-2: He kicks the door open, but the guards catch up and the chase continues out onto the street.
  • 3+: He kicks the door open dramatically and runs out onto the street.

If Finn tries some other approach.

  • On less than 1, he fails, and has some guards to fight
  • 1-2: He squeezes through the door, dropping loot, and it pursued by the guards.
  • 3-4: The GM makes a quick judgement call based on which next step seems more fun, or if Finn’s description suggests a particular direction, and Finn either drops some loot, or is pursued.
  • 5+: He kicks the door open dramatically and runs out onto the street.

That looks complicated, but in practice, it’s pretty simple and logical. And critically, it makes the choice of approach meaningful. This is a situation where a Quick or Forceful character will have an opportunity to shine, but success is still equally within reach of all characters.

And, critically, there is still plenty of room for creativity and problem solving. If a player has a clever way to mitigate or transform a risk, or use an approach in an unexpected way, then awesome! That’s a good thing! The goal here is not to penalize “wrong” choices, but rather to give weight to the choices made.

Risks and Success

But wait, you might say: What if avoiding a risk is implicit in the action the character wants to take? What if I want to sprint, or sneak or do something else where triggering the risk would equate to failure?

The answer, counterintuitively, is that it changes nothing, except that it clearly communicates the approach that you want to use in this situation, and in doing so, may call into question the necessity of the roll.

That is, if there is only one risk (say, getting spotted or not), then that risk is obviated by using a Sneaky approach, at which point, why are you rolling? The answer might be “more or less because rolling is fun” in which case I refer you to the next section, but ideally it’s because “Oh, right, there should be more going on for this roll than this simple binary – what other risks might be in play?”4

All Risk, All The Time

Ok, dirty truth. I have occasionally found myself in situations where I’ve called for a roll and I’m not really prepared for failure. I should know better, but sometimes the situations just feels like a roll is the right call at the moment, and I might need to fake my way out.

Risks are a great tool in this situation because, frankly, I can drop a 0 difficulty and assume success, with the question being one of risk. See, these situations almost always have multiple risk vectors in play simultaneously, and that is what the instinct to roll is responding too. I’m not really looking for success or failure, I’m just looking for how well things stay under control. “Failure” in this situation means all the consequences come home to roost, even the one the approach was supposed to mitigate.

Communicating Risks

There might be a temptation to list off risks as bullet points so players can respond to them, but I would recommend against it. The categories of risk we’ve listed are a shorthand, not an actual description – they are for your convenience as a GM, as a placeholder for the actual fictional risks you will describe (or not describe in some cases) to your players.

As a general best practice, use risks as cues for describing the situation. You don’t need to elaborate on each risk, but when you think of descriptive elements for the scene, take a moment to think about each risk and see if it might contribute to the description.

If you do start literally laying out risks as Mechanical constructs, I’ll be curious how that goes for you, though.

Risks vs. Consequences

This is a bit of bonus content. If a risk is something that might happen, a consequence is something that will happen as a result of action. Beyond that, they are structurally very similar, and once you have gotten the hang of thinking about risks, you can apply the same sort of thinking to consequences to use one of the most powerful tools of scenario design out there.

That is, if you want a really solid session, one trick for doing it is to present a single, simple problem or task which the players can absolutely accomplish, but which has numerous dire consequences. The adventure then becomes a matter of identifying the consequences and figuring out how to nullify or redirect them before performing the main task.

Which is to say: It’s how to design a heist.

Icons used are largely from game-icons.net


  1. Because by the law of RPG examples, it must be a door. ↩︎
  2. In fact, they can feel “too low” to the GM at times, which can lead to some undesirable behaviors. Adopting the risk model to FAE allows the GM to embrace low difficulty numbers, because there’s still plenty of room for low difficulty being accompanied by plenty of complicating risks. ↩︎
  3. This would technically be a cost, which is fine. You can absolutely borrow across risk types when it makes sense, and both cost and harm are sort of generic resources. ↩︎
  4. Interestingly, this reveals the real problem with one of the great RPG bugbears, Stealth. We have been trained by skill lists to think that “sneaking” is an action in its own right, but really it’s just moving with intent. ↩︎

Harm in Blades in the Dark

One of the things I’ve stumbled with a little in Blades in the Dark is that injuries are not a lot of fun. I get that it’s necessary for them to feel like they hurt for the game to feel gritty, but the fact that recovery is so slow is a real hindrance on play, specifically because it burns so many downtime actions. Now, I’m not sure how this is at other tables, but my players (and I) love our downtime actions. They are sweet, sweet candy. So the penalty to them seems onerous.

This has also made me – as a GM – more hesitant to inflict harm as a consequence because I knew it was not a fun option. That’s not a great place to be.

Thankfully, a conversation on Google Plus got me thinking about becoming more flexible in removing harm, and in a subsequent session, our Cutter got gassed and took a severe consequence, but it cleared up once he had time to walk it off. This felt SO much more natural and comfortable that I realized I needed to really rethink how I used harm in blades.

One thing that clearly jumped out is that by becoming more liberal in how harm gets cleared, I can also be more flexible in my definition of harm. Harm has always been a fuzzy thing, but I have never gone fully narrative with it. That is, because the way to clear harm was medical treatment, I was only comfortable using harm for things that could be cleared with medical treatment.

But if you adopt a flexible stance on harm removal, that also allows for a flexible stance on what constitutes harm. Emotional trauma? Reputation? Getting covered from head to toe in goat crap? If I treat all these things as Harm then I have a whole slew of new tools in my toolbox, and since the mechanical impacts of harm generalize well, they slot in seamlessly.

As a bonus, this underscores the fact that being taken out by harm does not kill a character. Now, when they are taken out by harm, it does not need to be an act of death defiance. It could just as easily be that it all became too much, or that they needed to go underground. I like this a lot.

And the funny thing is that while I got into this because I wanted the option to have more easily-clearable harm, this flexibility does not oblige me to that. Non-physical harm may require just as much (or more) effort to clear than regular harm. The difference is that for social and emotional harm, those means will often be more interesting than visiting the doctor. Social harm in particular can obviously be mapped to clocks, but it can also be addressed with a score. I kind of love that.

Now, I’m am totally good simply knowing this, but if you need some guidelines to mechanize this a bit, then let’s lean into the BitD ethos and say it’s more than one thing. 🙂

Harm Duration Guidelines

  • Harm has Severity and Duration, both from 1-4
  • Severity is the current level of harm. exactly as described in the rules.
  • Duration reflects how hard it is to clear/reduce
    • 1 (Momentary): Can be cleared with an easy action that requires no dice, like cleaning up, grabbing a meal or otherwise taking the time to clear it.
    • 2 (Temporary): Can be cleared with a single appropriate downtime action, or as a result of a more difficult roll or time intensive activity (like getting a full night’s sleep).
    • 3 (Persistent): Can be reduced with a single appropriate downtime action. This is the current default model, with the “appropriate action” being the medical roll. Other actions may require smaller or larger clocks, or no clock at all.
    • 4 (Lingering): Cannot be easily reduced or cleared. Will usually require some sort of action to determine how to clear it, or to remove the thing that’s keeping it from being cleared.
  • While the default Duration in Blades is 3, it can obviously be slid up and down as a result of the fiction. The GM should communicate duration along with severity when informing players of consequence.
  • The expectation is that duration should flow very logically form the fiction. For example, getting drunk would be temporary harm, of a severity that rather depends on how drunk.
  • The expectation is that duration also gives the GM a freer hand with severity, since there are now two ways to show how serious something is. Low severity but high duration tells a different story than high severity and low duration.
  • What harm may be used to reflect is entirely up to the GM

Gatekeeping?

Saw a super jerkish comment about Magic: the Gathering today (that “legit” players buy singles, not boosters) and it was a reminder that while I love playing Magic with friends and family, I really kind of hate dealing with it at large.

I mentioned this, and someone referred to it as “Gatekeeping” and I was left chewing on that.  On one hands, it’s kind of not, because this guy’s opinion does not keep me from buying boosters and playing like I want.   But on the other hand, he really *does* keep me out of this greater playspace (if only by showing it to be a place I don’t want to be).

 

(The behavior *was* absolutely gatekeeping in that he had appointed himself an arbiter of what “real” players are, but that’s more of a garden variety asshole thing, so I’m not really accounting for it.)

Anyway, I’m just wondering at the language of gatekeeping – One of the things that muddles conversation about the term is the implicit idea that that  gatekeeper has power to enforce the gate closure.  A lot of people don’t consider themselves gatekeepers because they don’t have power, or because there are other ways around their objections.  And maybe that’s true, but they’re still doing what this guy does: broadcasting a signal that indicates that this is not the place for you.  It has no *force* behind it, but the message itself conveys that this is the kind of place that’s *ok* with that message.

I dunno. Maybe we need another term for it, just so assholes can’t weasel out.  Can anyone suggest anything punchy?

Pacing Mechanisms

Black and White Stopwatch IconLet’s talk about pacing.

If you’re only vaguely familiar with the term, it means controlling how fast things go. While we’re talking about it in terms of games here, it’s also critically important in fiction, and the ways it’s important in fiction are often useful in games, so we’ll be talking a bit about both.

The purpose of pacing is to make sure that things take the right amount of time. This is a bit ephemeral, but in broadest strokes this means that things which are more important take more time, but they don’t take so much time that they become boring. There’s a lot of nuance in application – sometimes you can tweak pacing for specific effects – but that’s the heart of it.

All good so far, but we’ve now got two things to unpack: How long things take, and what’s important. Both of those are simple enough that they seem like things we can intuit, and often we can, but there’s utility to be had in drilling into them a bit.

Importance is an interesting one. In other media, importance is often tied directly to the story and how important a given scene is. A travel scene might take a few sentences of moments onscreen, but a tearful confrontation between ex-lovers turned rivals is going to eat up a lot of bandwidth because it’s important to the author (and hopefully the audience).

RPGs do not have quite that kind of clarity – the GM’s judgement (or opinion) may weight some scenes as more or less important than others, but that is an unreliable metric. In fact, a lot of bad GM stories are a result of the GM’s ideas of what’s important being out of whack with the players’ sense.

Instead, RPGs offer a different sort of clarity – attention. The things which the players (GM included) are most interested in are the most important. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Player attention is mercurial and unpredictable, and while the GM may use the tools at her disposal to try to tilt and channel it, she can neither predict nor control it.

RPGs also offer more levels of engagement than those offered to a passive audience. This means that while time is one factor in pacing, so is action.

And this is where we hit upon two overlapping but slightly separate ideas.

Stories have the idea of a beat as a general term for a moment when something happens. A fight might happen on an action beat. Something funny might happen on a comedy beat. A conversation might happen on a dialog beat and so on.

A beat does take a fixed amount of time – it could literally be a moment, or it might be an entire scene. That flexibility makes them a good way to sort of look over a story and spot the beats, and see if they’re skewing a certain way (and if you maybe want to break that pattern).

Games have beats too, and the idea is useful in that context, but games also have rolls. Exactly what a roll means varies from game to game, but there is a common idea that a player describes a particular type of action, dice are rolled, and mechanics are engaged that determine what direction the description goes in. That is to say, the roll equates to action.

The relationship between rolls and beats is interesting. One thing that happens a lot once a designer learns about beats, they have a moment of “what if every beat was a roll?” because that seems very tidy.

It does not work for crap, but it’s a neat thought.

But it’s an interesting failure, because if you try it, you discover that there are plenty of beats where the dice shouldn’t be rolled, and that reveals something important and relevant – calling for a dice roll is a pacing decision. It explicitly says that more attention (and often more time) is going to be paid to this thing.

This is pretty simple for systems that have big rolls, ones where a LOT gets resolves in a single pass. But for other systems, where rolls may be pretty granular, importance is reflected by the number of rolls. If you look to D&D, it’s not hard to see how the things that call for the most rolls are also the default play actions.

But as with time, action is not open ended. Spending too much time on a scene starts to drain its importance, and similarly, spending too many actions on a scene can turn it into a grind (at least in part because that will kill a lot of time too).

Which is where we come to gaming’s first great pacing mechanic1 – the hit point. We like to imagine hit points as a proxy for health, luck or robustness, but in purely practical terms, hit points are a control on how long a fight should last. Yes, there are variables that play into this like hit chances, crits and so on, but it’s still a rough metric for fight duration as measured in the number of rolls in a fight.2

And that brings us back to tracks. Tracks, like any mechanic that controls the number of rolls (or other points of engagement) something is going to take, is a pacing mechanism.

This seems like a lot of trouble to slap a label on the mechanic, so how does that actually help anything?

Well, here’s the thing. I mentioned that RPG’s have rolls available as a measure of attention, but what I did not mention is that they’re often a fairly clunky tool. Even if the fiction changes, in most (not all3) systems, the act of rolling is very repetitive, and as a result, the scope of the roll becomes constrained with habit.

That is not always a bad thing. Just as you would not want a movie resolved in 30 seconds, you probably don’t want an adventure resolved in one roll. Tracks (and similar) let you take an idea of something that should exist in your game but which is out-of-sync with your dice pacing, and integrate it smoothly into play. That sounds very abstract, but if you think a little bit about things you don’t want resolved in one roll (particularly things that stop play, like abrupt success/failure or character death) you should be able to find concrete examples with ease.

Now, pacing is not the only reason you’d want to use tracks/wheels/clocks/whatever. But if you are using them, it’s important to realize that you are making a pacing decision – several pacing decisions usually – and being mindful of that will help improve the flow of play.

  1. Possibly second after the idea of taking turns. ↩︎
  2. 4e D&D illustrated this fantastically with it’s creature roles. ↩︎
  3. One thing almost no systems let you do is have different sizes of roll. The only good example I have is the brilliant game, The Shadow of Yesterday, which resolves combat with a single roll, unless you want to go into blow-by-blow combat. That allows the pacing to change up within the scope of play (and addresses the fact that most games have different pacing requirements for rolls in and out of combat). It’s brilliant, and it makes me sad that more games haven’t used it. ↩︎

 

Fate Tracks

Anyone familiar with the Second Edition of Fate knows that we made heavy use of challenge tracks. They were useful for all kinds of things, from running debates to casting spells to playing chess (the chess example is one of my favorites to date). A challenge track was a set of boxes, often with difficulties at different levels, and triggers at various points along the way. They provided a tool for tracking the results of actions that could not reasonably be accomplished in a single roll.

The stress tracks that exist in Fate Core are the only remnant of this once-ubiquitous tech. The reason is simple – it was a little bit too fiddly for what it was trying to accomplish, so it got dropped in favor of smoother resolution. There’s some regret to that, sure, but it was the right direction at the time.

That was my general take on this until a few months ago when I read Blades in the Dark and was delighted by John’s approach to clocks because it specifically solved a lot of the complexity problems that we had with challenge tracks, and did so with style and grace. And as is my wont with such things, I am now going to mug BitD in a dark alley and go through its pockets for change.

Before I begin, a couple caveats.

  1. Blades is brilliant. Go read it. I am offering only a pale shadow of the delight it offers.
  2. I am going to talk about tracks rather than clocked for my own use, but honestly, if you want to just use clocks because circles and pie wedges are awesome (they are) then you should absolutely do that.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about Tracks.

A track is a set of boxes (usually – more on that in a bit) used to measure progress towards a goal. It’s pretty basic – some things cause boxes to be checked off, and when the final box is filled in, the thing happens. Simple as that!

So, for example, if you have a crew of adventurer’s sneaking into a guarded manor, you might create a track for the alertness level of the guards. As play proceeds, loud actions (like fights) or other misadventures might check off boxes, and when the last box is checked, the alarm is sounded, and the situation goes from bad to worse.

Easy enough, but the example reveals a few key question about tracks, and point us to the things that we, as GMs, want to know about any track we create1.

To come up with a track, you need to know:

  • What completion will trigger
  • What sort of things will cause the track to progress
  • How many boxes the track will have

Now, broken down into a list, that may seem a little fiddly, but the actual flow is quite organic.

Trigger

This is largely simple, but with a little bit of nuance – it’s what’s going to happen when the track fills up. But, critically, it’s not necessary everything that’s going to happen. That is, the consequences can be part of the track, but often the track is about a triggering event, with the consequences to be inferred. Sometimes they’re very obvious, in the case of “Manor House Alertness”, but sometimes they’re an open ended statement like, like “Alfonzo Discovers the Truth”.

Progress

It’s easy to get spun up on this if you think about it too strictly and start laying down what sort of skills and actions drive these things. That sort of structure makes sense when the purpose of the track is to represent a specific task or challenge – for example, if you’ve got a track going for finding the location of a hidden artifact, then each successful research scene (or roll, or session, depending2) might tick off a box.

For tracks that are less direct – especially ones that represent risks – there are a lot more ways for things to progress. Partly this is a function of GM taste and style, but also it’s a function of offscreen narrative. This could probably be a topic entirely of its own, but generally speaking, player failures, success at cost and concessions are all opportunities to advance a track.

Duration

A short track communicates imminence, a longer track gives some breathing room. Both are appropriate and there’s no hard or fast rule around length, but there are a few tips.

Assume that 4-6 steps is the “default” number, and shape from there. That means that if you drop a 2 step track on your players, you are declaring that it’s more or less a bomb with a lit fuse3. If, on the other hand, there are 8 or more, then players are unlikely to respond immediately, but it’s going to loom over them over time.

The instinct is that nastier consequences and greater difficulties have longer tracks, and that is true to an extent, but it’s not the whole of the picture. Short tracks with high consequences make great threats and they’re easy to manage. Long tracks for their own sake are more of a problem – making a track long for its own sake runs the risk of turning it into a grind. Since the length of the track is (roughly) the number of times the issue needs to be engaged, feel free to shorten tracks to speed up pacing.

That is, for example, if something is very hard to research there’s a temptation to make the track for resolving it very long. If the research is something happening alongside other play, then awesome. But if it just means “Ugh, another research scene?”, that track is too long.


So, this is just a starter with the idea.  There’s still a lot to unpack, but I wanted to start with the basics of what a track is, so we can start delving into all the things you can do with them

 

  1. We’ll get into when and how we create them later. For the moment, let’s just focus on how they work. ↩︎
  2. This point probably needs its own post at some point, but here’s a general rule of thumb – if a track is immediate (that is, it can be resolved in a scene or two) then make sure it needs to be a track, and if so, then tick up once per roll. If it’s ambient – something that might matter for the duration of a session (like alert level) or a problem that’s going to come to head in a short arc, then it’s appropriate to tick it up at the end of a scene. For BIG issues, the kind that shape the campaign and the setting, a tick at the end of a session is more appropriate.You can absolutely note scale on the tracks if you feel like it’s necessary, but I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The level of granularity will probably be reasonably intuitive, and sometimes the rules will need to be broken (such as a fight killing a prominent NPC immediately ticking up the “political instability” track). These tiers of granularity are guidelines, albeit fairly robust ones.

    One other potential input is downtime – actions taken between sessions of play. It’s something to bear in mind, but that will definitely need to be its own post at some point.

  3. On some level, I am tempted to just upend the nomenclature and call these fuses instead of tracks. It’s nicely visceral. Certainly not ruling it out. ↩︎

Fixed and Dynamic Aspects

Padlock with fate icons in lieu of a combination“Always On” aspects is one of those ideas that has been kicking around as long as aspects have existed. There are a lot of great implementations do things like  grant simple bonuses for aspects. TinyFate is based on this idea, and the truly excellent Three Rocketeers by PK Sullivan is almost iconic in its application.

With that in mind, I decided to solidify my thinking on this approach to aspects in a way that makes them easier to talk about, and to that end I want to talk about locked and dynamic aspects.

What’s a Dynamic Aspect?

That one’s easy – it’s a “normal” aspect. I’m applying this label purely for clarity.

What is a Fixed Aspect?

A fixed aspect is written up like a normal aspect, but its Fixed nature is denoted by it being underlined. Mechanically, a Fixed aspect’s impact is very simple: If it would help on a given roll, it grants a +1 bonus. If it would hinder a given roll, it applies a -1 penalty. Simple as that. Note that there is no interaction with fate points in this – it’s simply something to be taken into account.

How to Use fixed & Dynamic Aspects

As designed, fixed aspects can be used interchangeably with dynamic aspects. In fact, their use is the easiest part of this. If I have the aspects:

  • Strong
  • Fierce Fighter

And I make a roll to attack, let’s say I get a +2. Now, Strong is a fixed aspect, so it’s going to give me a +1, bringing that to a +3. Fierce Fighter is a dynamic aspect, so if I spend a fate point, I’ll bump that to a +5. Mechanically, this is all very simple.

Where this gets a little more complicated is the question of what aspects should be locked and which aspects should be dynamic. To that end, there are a few different models:

Free For All

The simplest model is to simply decide what type each aspect is when it’s created1. As an option, you may allow for an aspect to be ‘flipped’ by spending a fate point to change it from fixed to dynamic or vice versa. This works well if there’s a balance, but it breaks down in edge cases. Specifically, if characters simply load up on fixed aspects, then bonuses can quickly get out of whack, and characters will also get much more boring, since the usual advice (“More interesting aspects are more mechanically potent”) stops being true, and aspects that grant more bonuses more often become more desirable. As such, this is not a recommended approach.

Constrained – Capped

This is the same as the Free For All, with the single caveat that the bonus from fixed aspects is capped at +3. This is still quite potent, but it can work decently well in games where there’s a more constrained set of other bonuses (such as FAE).

Option: If you like math and a world FULL of aspects, instead of a hard +3 cap, consider 1 aspect grants a +1, 3 aspects a +2, 6 a +3, 10 a +4 and so on.

Constrained – GM Only

Another approach is to make fixed aspects the domain of the GM, and any aspect the GM creates is considered to be fixed, while character and player-created aspects remain dynamic. This model has a lot of advantages – it drives any GM invokes and compels towards the players while allowing for simpler mechanical application of things like environmental aspects and unnamed NPCs (who could be expressed purely as aspects). In fact, under this model, the GM will probably almost exclusively create static aspects except for very key elements (like named NPCs or plot points worth hanging a lantern on).

Blended

Note, this model does not work well with skills or even approaches, but it is a solid way to handle aspect-only play. In this model, aspects are both fixed and dynamic. That is, they will provide their passive bonus or penalty, but can also be invoked or compelled for an additional +2/-2 as appropriate.

While this is very simple on its surface, the one complication is the question of what fate points are used for. Because the fixed bonuses can be substantial, players may decide they do not need as many Fate Points to function, and we can end up with similar problems to the free for all. If your game has some additional use for Fate Points (either because you’ll be pushing compels hard for setting reasons, or because they have some other mechanical value, such as fueling stunts) then you should be fine, but if not, consider implementing a cap.

Pure Fixed

As with Blended, this works poorly in conjunction with skills (unless you introduce a cap, as in the Constrained-Capped model) but this is another way to do aspect-only play if you have always been interested in Fate but less into the whole hippie-dippy fate point economy stuff. This will complicate specific games that require fate points for mechanical elements (Dresden Files, for example) but for many games, this offers a different but functional model of play.

Other Options

There’s still plenty of room for nuance and tweaking within this space – the approaches I’ve outlined are far from the only ways to handle it. But for all that, this can be a useful tool to throw into your toolbox, especially for GMs who like the descriptive  nature of aspects, since it allows the GM to go aspect-only in many situations.  Starting up NPCs is as easy as noting they’re a StupidBrutish Thug and you know they have +2 to most violence, -1 to anything depending on cunning, and you’re good to go.

This also can interact well with consequences.  While I recommend that most character aspects are dynamic, consequences can be a reasonable exception to that for games which want injury to carry a lingering impact.  This becomes even more true when you decide to replace stress and consequences with conditions,

Anyway, my goal here is not to exhaust the idea, but simply to talk about it in a way that allows easy interchangeability between fixed and dynamic aspects. If nothing else, it’s provided me a way to talk about it in the future, so I’m good with that.

 


  1. Important mechanical note: if you create a fixed aspect, then that effectively forgoes the free invoke (or extra free invoke for success with style) and that may disincentives creating fixed aspects. That sounds like a bug, but it’s really a feature, since it means player-created aspects will tend to be dynamic, while GM-created aspects (those for framing a scene) will tend to be fixed. ↩︎

To Be a Better GM, Play This Game

10 node diagram with connecting lines

Adapted from the HipBone games board.

So, there’s an idea from Herman Hesse’s Magister Lundi of “The Glass Bead Game” which is sort of a game played out in the similarities between different and complicated things. I was introduced to the idea of it back in the the days of the mostly text World Wide Web by Hipbone Games (whose website still exists!). It was an interesting evolution of other association games I’d played, and I’d really stuck with me. I’ve written before about the glass bead game itself and some tricks for using it when GMing, but today I want to talk about its advantages in a more abstract fashion.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about tactical GMing. Game books are full of great general advice, and there’s a lot of wisdom to learn from out there, but when I think about how that advice connects to the moment-to-moment decisions I make at the table, it can sometimes be hard to really explain how it works. So I started thinking about some of the games I’ve run most recently in really granular terms, and I hit upon a particular pattern.

For me, the single most useful skill for GMing flexibly and responsibly is the ability to look at a thing and immediately see the number of other things it might be.

Now, I’m sure that for some of you that sentence made sense, and you can probably skip the next little bit. But if that sounded like gibberish, let me unpack a little bit.

As an example, let’s use Superman. He’s pretty well known, so he’s a pretty easy touchpoint. Let’s say I want to use Superman in my game or story or whatever. I can do that, sure, but what if I take a moment to think about all the things Superman is:

  • An alien
  • An icon of Truth, Justice and the American Way
  • Power incarnate
  • Mild mannered reported Clark Kent
  • Nemesis of Lex Luthor
  • Impossible – no one can be that good
  • Inspiring – example of how power can be used
  • The creation of Jewish Artists

I could go on for quite some time – Superman is an incredibly rich subject, enough so that I’m confident that I missed some of your favorites.

Now, this is an interesting curiosity, and is maybe a slightly useful exercise in helping me think about how I use Superman in my game, but in isolation, this is not that helpful. But now here’s a thought exercise: Do the same thing for Batman. It should be easy, he’s just as iconic. You don’t even need to write them down, just hold a couple of truths about Batman in your head while you look at that Superman list again – do any of the items on your Batman list resonate1 with anything on the Superman list? Maybe with some combinations? One classic examples, of course, is that Batman has no powers, so any the he conflicts with Superman (Power Incarnate), that difference is cast into sharp relief. Other possible resonances might be between their beliefs, or perhaps even between their respective civilian guises!

This is, I admit, a slightly mechanical exercise. For a GM or writer who already knows Batman or Superman well, there’s no need to articulate the list because they have already internalized it, and as soon as you say “Batman and Superman”, they’re mentally looking for those points of connection. In a perfect world, we’d all have a similar level of understanding of every idea we consider, but it’s not a perfect world.

And that is where the glass bead game comes in. As a game, it is a means to exercise that muscle of seeing all the versions of a thing and how those connect to the versions of other things. As a GM, that is a muscle that you want to exercise and get strong because in actual play you are bombarded with a constant series of things that make up the game you are running. As with Batman and Superman, if you can see the constellation of ideas that make those things rich, then you can use that to connect to other things and you will discover that you are no longer reliant on ideas, because you have an excess of conclusions.

That probably sounds like hyperbole, but I’m 100% sincere. Once you get used to seeing the connections between elements, you stop feeling like you need to create ideas, and instead they become something that you discover. That is a distinction that matters a lot when mental energy is at a premium – it takes a lot more juice to go “Ok, I need a good plot for lord Pembleton, let’s think of something” than “Of course, Lord Pembleton is working with the Blood Crows!”. That “of course” has a feeling that you will come to appreciate, because it usually is accompanied by a crowd of “Oh, and also!”s because it’s all so logical.

This is probably a less magical view of creativity than is often put forward for GMs. Saying that there’s a mechanical exercise (playing the glass bead game) which can improve a technical skill (drawing connections and inferences between disconnected nodes) and that leads to better creativity in play is antithetical to some views of the universe, and if that’s you, then it’s also an easy exercise not to do.

For everyone else, please just try playing the game. Don’t just think about it. Do it. Especially with other people. Even if you are brilliant and creative and can see tons of connections, you will still have your eyes opened by what other people see. This is one of the great powers of the glass bead game – the connections it calls for are the ones that make sense to the player. Your incredible knowledge of the tapestry of classical literature is on equal footing with another players love of puns.

Anyway, beyond a certain threshold, I can only explain so much. Beyond that, it’s on you to try it or not.

  1. Ok, that is not a super technical word, and I cop to that. In the physical world, resonance is something that we can measure, but when we talk about ideas resonating, it’s pretty subjective, so to unpack it a little, ideas resonate when the idea of combining them is more interesting than any random ideas. One might reveal nuances of another, or cast another into sharp contrast. There’s a little bit of “You’ll know it when you see it”, but one of the subtle benefits of doing more glass beading is that it will help you get more sensitive to resonance, so if the idea is still kind of fuzzy now, it will get clearer with practice. ↩︎

Blackheels and Blackfingers

Another double dose!

As is traditional with the Blackheels, I had no idea what was going on, but since it’s a weekday night, I like to push a little – if the players want to go in another direction, then awesome, but I wan to make sure there’s at least one clear path of opportunity. Looking for this, I did a quick reading with my Everway deck and spun up a quick plot thread.

The Blackheels were approached for a job outside of town – a man of military bearing approached Noose (the spider) with an offer. His patron needed information from a ghost, and the Blackheels had a reputation in that space. Intrigued, the crew agreed to meet with his patron, a portly young man who – judging by how free he was with the food – had more money than sense. He was also kind of an asshole, but he was willing to pay a substantial amount (8 Coin) for the crew’s assistance. Plus, everyone was pretty sure he had not poisoned them.

The trip to the Lost District was by boat and uneventful until docking. Interestingly, I realized as we were discussing that this was technically a transport score, so I quickly sketched out a map, added a few details that made it clear each route that risks, and let the players go nuts.

They avoided the smugglers and looters, but came dangerous close to the cultists – fleeing those lead them into the bloodbugs, and then into the haunted storefronts, which ended a bit explosively as a body-hopping storekeeper ended up on the receiving end of the Cutter’s ghost-punching.

But they got to the old bank, and proceeded to look for the ghost, which is when things went wrong. A voice offered double the money they had been promised if the Lurk would remove a necklace from their employer. At first, it just whispered to the Spider and Slide, but eventually approached the Lurk directly, who decided this sounded like a great idea. The dice, however, were not with her. She succeeded, but their employer’s armsman saw it, and the violence began. The Lurk’s life was mostly saved by some retroactive sabotage on the Spider’s part, and the Cutter got hurt before the Slide & Spider bought a moment of distraction that let the hound get off a clean shot.

Meanwhile, the client had been flopping around, floating off the ground and generally having a low budget mystical FX moment. He pulled himself together, and in a rather different manner, thanked the crew, lead them down to the safe deposit room, pointed out three vaults, and encouraged them to take as much gold from them as they could. The crew had concluded that he had been possessed, and had been freed by removing the necklace, and their employer did not contradict this conclusion, and was in fact an absolutely sterling client all the way back to nearly his place, where he apologetically parted ways because, he noted, the former resident had orders that the crew be killed if they were with him (at this point the crew realized that this was young Lord Reilly, heir to the Reilly canning fortune and the breadbasket of Duskvol).

So the crew took their money and happily went home. They had been well paid (and were grateful they already had the vault upgrade), had accrued minimal heat and had picked up significant rep for “Robbing a bank in the Lost District”. And the entanglement roll was, as it had been last time, “Unquiet Dead”, so I put that in my pocket, because things are very clearly going in a direction.


Now on to the Blackfingers!

Having stolen Slane’s payroll last episode, he’d taken a loan from Lord Coleburn to fund his next shipment of plating to the fleet, so the crew’s plan was to sabotage it. We had exactly the chemical’s we needed thanks to the Jack’s downtime efforts last session, so we launched immediately into the plan.

There was some discussion of different approaches, but the crew settled on deception – Jack, Luca and Rudy would take over one of the regular deliveries to the factory, slip in that way and put the chemicals into the iron. The engagement roll came up risky, so play began with a more-intelligent-than-average person manning the gate, looking at Jack, squinting, and remarking “I don’t know you.”

Flashback to Achilles getting the gate rotation and giving Jack a full briefing on who to expect, what to say and so on (also providing an assist), revealing that this is Grace, and she’s got union sympathies. Jack spins some lies, rolls well, and the cart gets inside.

Faced with the question of how to deliver the chemicals without being noticed, we cut over to Izzy, who has blended in with the workers and takes this opportunity to begin a rousing speech about the terrible labor conditions1. She succeeds wildly, and provides a distraction (a setup) for Jack to do the sabotage. Rudy also seizes the opportunity of the distracted Slane to rob his office and pick his pocket because Rudy has 1) very little sense of self preservation and 2) The devil’s own luck with the dice (He got Slane’s paperwork and his keys). The sabotage succeeds and now comes the question of how people will get out.

The real danger at this point is to Izzy, who has drawn the attention of Slane’s legbreakers. Luca got a good read on the potential violence and made a beeline towards Izzy, attempting to shout her down. She succeeds in giving Izzy an opportunity to be ushered out, but also ends up in the midst of a violent riot that she needs to fight her way out of. Jack provides distraction by releasing the exploding goat (flashback to Achilles lecturing on the subtleties of goat detonation) as a distraction, and Luca manages to fight her way out, resisting injury, but with a devil’s bargain that resulted in a fatality.

Outside the factory, Grace confronted Izzy because she had not seen Izzy at any of the meetings, but Izzy bullshitted well, and made her escape.

In the aftermath, the crew got a little rep, some coin (they sold papers about the riot) and SO MUCH HEAT. 7 Heat. Thankfully we had started at zero due to some excellent lawyering on Izzy’s part last session, so it could have been worse. Entanglement roll resulted in Luca getting beat to crap by the Bluecoats, and that’s where our luck ran out – She resisted the harm with 4 dice, but only one stress left, and she failed to roll a 5 or 6. Luca picked up the first trauma (Reckless). Downtime was mostly training and clearing heat.

Next job was an attempt to improve situation while waiting for the iron sabotage to pay off. After some discussion, we decided to pursue the Cover Operation improvement to upgrade the Night Market Dispatch to the Duskvol Dispatch, and after some discussion of how to approach that, the score ends up being a social score to get on good terms with the Railjacks – it gives us good material for the big issue and another avenue for distribution. Achilles has connections via Lynch & Sons, and the engagement roll was a crit, so we jump past the first challenge and we’re swapping stories with the Railjacks. This leads to an unexpected realization that if we can send one of Jack’s Camera’s with with Railjacks to get photos of the Deathlands, and that smells like OPPORTUNITY! So the crew took a picture (of a railjack throwing a bottle, with the intent of showing the result to the railjack’s tomorrow.

However, while leaving the railjack bar, Jack, Izzy and Achilles we greeted by gentlemen in Imperial regalia. Izzy lied brilliantly and got Jack of the hook, but Izzy & Achilles were invited into a carriage with the a lady from the ministry of preservation, A Lady Slane (elder sister of THAT Slane) who is concerned about unionization among the Railjacks. Achilles made the case that the Dispatch’s business interests with the Railjacks would diminish union pressures. He also agreed to report on any interesting news from the Railjacks.

The photo was well received, and the crew also worked overnight to make a little penny dreadful pamphlet of one of the Railjack’s stories (and a copy sent to the ministry making a note that the coda of the actual story reflects poorly on the railroads, but that made for a boring story. The camera was sent off with a Railjack and all was good. (3 rep, 1 heat, 6 Coin)

Kristoff Edwrap, rep for the Ink Rakes, showed up as a result of the engagement roll, and the shakedown began. The Crew has agreed to roll with that for now.

Downtime was quiet. Jack built his camera, everyone else trained, and we called it a night.

  1. As a table we kind of wanted this to be a musical number, but no such luck. ↩︎