Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

Podcast: Iterative Design

NarrativeControlSo, a little while back, Luke Crane was on an episode of Narrative Control where he – being Luke – said some controversial things.  Those things touched on Fate and Apocalypse World, so Sean invited me and Vincent Baker on to talk and sort of respond. It was fun. Sean is always awesome, and Vincent is genuinely one of the nicest guys in gaming. The episode has been posted, and you can listen here if you have ever been interested in hearing my sinister laugh (ok, not really).


That said, I’m going to call out something that I let pass during the podcast because it would have been a total sidetrack.  To Vincent’s mind, 2d6 + value vs target is the most obvious dice mechanic, with rolling d6s and counting 50% successes as the second most obvious.  I respect his opinion, and they’re both solid dice mechanics, but I say poppycock. For a couple of reasons.

First, the obviousness of any die mechanic that is not “read the value on the dice” is pretty damn spurious.  Some mechanics may be easier to learn or simpler, but that is horse of a different color.

Second, if there is a natural die language, it is hugely user variable.  To me, there is no die mechanic more obvious than that used by Risus – roll some dice and add them up. More dice are better.  I feel like it’s very nearly perfect.  But for some the idea is utterly repellant.  If you’ve played a lot of other games, Feng Shui’s dice mechanic (d6 – d6) is “weird” but that’s the force of habit.  Hell, it is only time which has made D&D’s polyhedrons “not weird” to a lot of us.

Vincent is a genius. One of the greats. And he should absolutely design to his intuition.  But don’t feel bound to it.

PS – I’m not even going to pretend that Fudge/Fate dice are intuitive.  I could make the case that the actual die roll itself is pretty grokkable, but the ladder is something you learn, for better or for worse.


The Thaw: Session 0.1 – Connections

Once we had characters created, we did a quick round of connections to establish a little bit of backstory between the characters.

First we sketched out a shared adventure. Collapsing ice, emerging Giant spiders, fighting the spiders, exploring the revealed ruin. very loosely sketched, but it now gives something concrete to throw flashbacks at in the future.

Next, I just assigned everyone a number, rolled a die twice, then flipped up a Paizo plot twist card (from the flashbacks set – yes, this is turning into a little bit of an ad for Paizo’s cards). I pretty much just did this until almost everyone had at least two, then did a quick one for the remaining 3 people.


Naoto & Tuak drew “Lost”, so we talked about how they had gotten seperated in the dungeon and got Lost together. Because Tuak is kind of a jerk, we decided that they got to a point where a halfling could get out. Naoto did, but came back for Tuak. Without payment even!

Glimmer & Treewind drew “Life Changer”. The card has the image of a newborn on it, so we went literal, and in the midst of the ice spider attack, they delivered a baby despite having no idea what they were doing. Glemmer managed to fake it, but Treewind got the credit, and the baby’s name was Tree.

Glemmer & Arasthel drew kept secret, so we zeroed in on the Fire sister. Glemmer knows he Cambion she was with, and remarked to the investigating Arasthel that she didn’t seem kidnapped. Arasthel asserted she was charmed, but Glemmer knows she’s lying, and she knows he knows, so they have this little shared secret.

Naoto & Israfil drew Lacunsa(Memory), so we talked about the way they met, and decided that Naoto was the one who had opened the watchtower and released Israfil. They share the secret of the watchtower’s location.

Kit & Arasthel drew “reunion”, so Kit had visited the wood elf kingdoms in her youth, and had learned the basics from Arasthel.

Israfil & Glemmer drew “repressed memory”, which was kind of a weird one, so we decided that Glemmer had found the watchtower as well, but failed to open it (possibly because he’s not particularly pure of heart). However, that added Glemmer to Israfil’s sleeping awareness, so he dreamed of Glemmer’s defeat of the sleeper, though he doesn’t fully recall or understand that.

For the last one, Kit, Tuak & Treewind drew “Regret”, which ended up being a little bit tricky, since Kit is LG, and Tuak and Treewind are N and CN respectively, so moral regret was a little hard to come by. So it turned out they had cost the town something – they were attacked by a Rehemoraz, which would pretty much chew them up and spit them out. They were saved by Marshall Atwood, the hero/lawman of the town, but in doing so, Atwood was horrifically injured and crippled. Kit feels horribly responsible and Tuak and Treewind feel horrible that other people blame them for it.

And that is where we left it. If people had not needed to get home, then I suspect we would have insisted on starting play right then, which is (I think) a good sign.

New Faces

  • Baby Tree
  • Marshal Atwood

The Thaw: Session 0

Woo, Chargen. That was a Hell of a ride.

Ok, to frame all this – this was Chargen for a straight up 5e D&D game. There were a few mechanical changes based on the setting (tweaks to Drow and Tieflings, new Warlock pact, new Sorcery power source) with the biggest change being that we replaced the background stuff with 4 aspects. The aspects weren’t just pulled out of the air though – after we finished chargen we sat down with each character, asked some questions, then did an Everway-style card read (Past, Present, Future) for each character using the Harrow Deck(fn).

For the unfamiliar, you use tarot like cards for the process, flipping one for past, one for present. The last one is played sideways, and it represents the future, and something that might go either way. If that’s unclear, the photos should clear it up.

Procedurally, there were just a few tweaks. I emphasized backgrounds over classes, asking for background decisions before class decisions were made. It only makes so much fo a difference, but I think it helped cement the characters in useful ways. We also explicitly have not defined much more of the setting than I laid out in my previous blog post, so there were one or two points where we stopped to answer things about the world, but those weren’t any real slowdown. The main thing was that when someone introduced a god, they had to choose which of the two characters from the Dungeon World game that god is the offspring of.

We also did a round of connections after charge to cover the trip from level 1 to level 2.  Those might be their own post though.

Ok, all that said: The Characters

Kit, Lawful Good Byzant Folk Hero, Level 2 Fighter (Aspects: No one says no to the emperor, Hero of the empire, Keeping Secrets, Liberator or conquerer?)

The Byzant are one of the two major human cultures in the south, and as the name may suggest, they are roughly modeled after the Byzantines.

Kit is an archer (and is,I think, going to ge tto showcase just how good 5e made archery fighters) who pulled a Bard the Bowman when a Wyvern attacked the Emperor and dropped it with a lucky shot. This lead to accolades and the close personal attention of the Emperor, which dangerous. It also drew the ire of whoever unleashed the Wyvern, and Kit had to start looking out for assassination attempts. This provided incentive for her to get out of town, and by some coincidence, the emperor needed someone he trusted (or maybe “someone he trusted”) in Placeholder to report on matters of Imperial interest should the Empire ever decide to annex the place. As a result, Kit is something of an unwilling spy.


Kit’s Past it the Trumpet, which reflects her heroism, which is genuine, and drew great attention. Her present is the Cyclone, inverted – making order out of chaos. This represents the imperial interest in Placeholder and gave us reasont o name her contact, Theodoros, a travelling doctor/merchant. Her future is the unicorn, and it seems likely she will either liberate Placeholder, or she will rule it.

Arasthel, Chaotic Good Wood Elf Noble.  Level 2 Druid of the Moon (Aspects: Under the shadow of your father, Family entanglements, Noble ties, Rule or Ruin)

The wood elves live in small forest communities ruled by councils.  Arasthel is the eldest daughter of two councillors, and it was expected that she would follow in their footsteps, but her choice of druidic initiation was a mild embarrassment to the family.  Thankfully, the second child (attuned to Fire as Arasthel is attuned to Earth) was much more promising.


Arasthel’s past, the Inqusitor, suggested that she had done something which brought suspicion upon her.  It turned out she had given safe harbor to woodcutters who had cut down wood elf trees because they were in need. By the law, their lives were forfeit. When asked who pursued the matter, the answer was her father, who still seeks to punish her for this (and, implicitly, for the shame of her going druid).   When we pulled Eclipse for her present, that seemed very loaded, especially with her being a moon druid.  This could have gone a lot of ways – it’s an evil, unpleasant card, but also represents the moon triumphing over the sun.   I leaned towards the darker interpretation, noting that the moon may also be eclipsed.  This was to be about the second sister, the one touched by fire.  Atasthel’s player had previously talked about the reason she was in Place was that she was looking for the missing sister, so we drilled into that, specifically asking what terrible thing her sister did that Arasthel let happen. It was decided that she had run off with a “man” – in quite because he’s a cambion – and Arasthel has covered her tracks, even when she and her brother were sent on this “rescue” mission.

With all that, the empty throne made for a wonderful pull.  She is either going to return home to leadership someday, or the leadership of the wood elves will fall.

Sul Taeres, Chaotic Neutral Wood Elf Entertainer. Level 2 Elementalist Sorcerer (Air) (Aspects: Conceal don’t feel, Profound Disgrace, Voice under the Ice, Power of Dark or Light?)

Sul Taeres most often goes by Treewind because humans can’t pronounce his name right. He is the youngest of the three wood elf siblings, and naturally attuned to air. His sorcery is viewed as outright freakish by the wood elves, and he kept it secret of many years, revealing it only to his sisters. They both supported him, but the second daughter was especially supportive.


His past came up as Hidden Truths, inverted, so we talked about how his magic was revealed – it happened when he had to save the life of another elf, and that elf was his father (who, if you’ll remember, is a bit of a jerk). He was practically disowned on the spot, and after the disappointment of the eldest child, this turned even more attention on the second daughter.  We determined that Sul Taeres is unaware that she ran away voluntarily, and genuinely thinks he can save his sister.

Which spills into the present – The avalanche, inverted.  Things settling into place I asked what was keeping Sul Taeres in place.  Duty and the quest for his sister, sure, but what else?  The answer: A voice from beneath the ice.  Obviously, I’m delighted with this.

So when the eclipse came up again for the future, it was too perfect. Again, that is so much the card for the missing sister, and it raises the question of whether Sul Taeres will follow her down that dark path, or find a new one.

(Mechanical note: I’m writing up the elementals sorcerer for this. I have  no published reference.)


Tuak Pel, Neutral Drow Bounty Hunter. Level 2 Warlock. (Aspects: Combat capitalist, Renegade elf of the ice, Questionable relationship with Glemmer, Binder or Opener?)

I have no great love of the drow, but in the absence of the underdark, they are elves who live on the ice. and have adapted to it through dark magics (and they use Inuit names).Pel is one such elf, and the intent of the character is to be a melee warlock, so he’ll be going Sword Pact at level 2.  The idea was that he had sworn fealty to a dark power but due to the nature of the pact (and the amount of drinking involved in that evening) he was a little shaky on which one.  We talked a little bit about bounties – he cheerfully works for all authorities in Placeholder, and when manhunting work is not available, he collects rare herbs on the ice for Theodorus.


For the past, we saw our old friend the inquisitor, but we could not use it in the same NPC for it, so instead we talked about who among the Drow might be pursuing him, and form this we determined that while there are many warlocks among the drow, they do not pact with Sleepers (things beneath the ice), and that is exactly what Pel did.  So far as they are concerned, his should has been ripped away, and his old Mentor (Uglo) now hunts the abomination who wears his old apprentices skin.  This, of course, not so healthy for Pel.

For the present, the Cricket, inverted, was a bit os a head scratcher at first. I looked at it hard before it struck me that it was absolutely representative of Glemmer, the Tiefling charlatan and another member of the party. The players had been discussing some history, so it cemented on this – Pel had “Killed” Glemmer to collect a bounty, and in doing so allowed Glemmer to establish the identity he currently operates under.  Perl got paid by Glemmer and by the dwarven marshall who had put out the bounty.

The future came up The Dance.  Looking at the card, it really felt like the it was going to be about Pel’s sword, and thinking about what that meant was inspired by the suit of the cards. I was struck by the image of the key, and it clicked – his sword will be a key, but the question is whether it will open something, or lock it away.

Naoto the Thunder, Lawful Good Halfling Soldier. Level 2 Cleric of Storms (Aspects: Last hope of sunset, The thunder and the executioner, Quest for the blade of storms, A sword has two edges)

Naoto is from he Sunset Shire, a halfling shire not far from Placeholder which has half thawed.  Naoto herself is a warrior priest armed with a hallooing scaled naginata.  At first, the idea was that she had been sent out to find an army to protect the Sunset Shire. That lead to the question – this seemed like a mission doomed to fail, so who was getting rid of her? We flipped the first card to help answer.


The flip was The Beating, and that upended things wonderfully.  it was not that they needed an army, it was that they had one already, and it was BAD.  Naoto’s sister (So Mei, the Executioner) had turned to necromancy, and had convinced the shire that an army of “ancestors” was the path to safety.  Naoto desperately seeks some way to defeat her sister and restore the Shire.

The present revealed The Forge, inverted. That suggested a classic theme, a broken weapon. Naoto seeks the Blade of Storms, but so does the executioner.  The blade was revealed to Naoto in a vision that she assumes came from her goddess (Inazuma, daughter of Fafnir and Tetra) but these things don’t exactly come with an SSL certificate.

The future was the Demon’s Lantern, effectively the will o the wisp.  This suggests that she’ll find the blade, but the question is whether it will save the Sunset Shire, or doom it.

Glemmer, Chaotic Good Tiefling Charlatan. Level 2 Cleric of Trickery (Aspects: Clarion: hero of the ice, Secret Identities, Awkward entanglements, Who the hell am I?)

I should note that Glemmer’s player rolled insanely well for stats. one 13, everything else was 15+.  Tieflings are apparently badass.

Thankfully, there aren’t many of them, and they don’t get along very well. Compound this with being a priest of Ngaro (Child of Jack and Job, God of Ice and Shadow) – a god the tie flings mostly pray to only to avoid the ire of, and Glemmer had every reason to head towards the thaw. This was clinched when he received a vision that he presumes form his god (sound familiar) that told him that Placeholder must remain free.



When the past flipped up The Trumpet, it was one of those moments that are exactly why  I love the unexpected things that come from this sort of charge.  The Trumpet (which we’d previously seen with Kit’s heroism) was totally at odds with Glemmer as we had described him so far, so we kicked this around a bit.  It turns out Glemmer had done a great act of heroism in the past, slaying a Sleeper (albeit by accident) under his old name, Clarion. In fact, it was Clarion who Pel had “killed”.

The Present, with the Theatre inverted, was much more in line with what we had described, as  it touched upon the complex web of deception Glemmer was building, including three separate identities. It’s all tenuous, and in his merchant guise he is doing business with Theodorus. He also has discovered another Trickster priest in town, but has not discern their identity, and there is a cold war of mischief afoot.

Having the Liar come up for the future was pretty much exactly right. The question is, ultimately, whether Glemmer’s lies will overwhelm him.

Israfil, Neutral Good High Elf Hermit. Level 2 Paladin of the Thaw (Aspects: Bringer of the Storm, Placeholder hero, Life is but a dream, Left by my Lover)

Israfil has been dreaming for two thousand years. He was sealed in a high elf Watchtower. He expected to pass on to the Fae with the fountains of wine and beautiful gardens, but something went amiss.



The Wanderer, inverted meant that for the Past we focused on how he ended up int he Watchtower. Turns out, he wasn’t supposed to, but his lover had asked him to meet him there, and he got stuck. Maybe it was an accident, maybe his lover didn’t fancy the idea of skipping out on the wine and gardens in favor of millennia of duty.   Israfil was not a Paladin when he entered, but he was when he came out.  He doesn’t know if this sis a function of the Watchtower itself or if it’s related to the Thaw (his code is going to be the Green, as a manifestation of the Thaw). The player compared it to the Greatest American hero – Great power, no manual.


For the present, The Big Sky inverted was another blow against freedom, so we talked about what bound him.  It turns out he’s explicitly bound to the thaw, something he discovered when he tried to find his old lover and could not.  We talked a bit about his authority, and while no one (except maybe high elves) would recognize it, the natural world would.

For the future, the cyclone suggested that he would either reign order or destruction, or as the player summarized “Bringing the storm”



Starting Faces

I need to make sure these get names and faces, but we have some decent starting NPCs

  • Theodoros, the doctor/Spy
  • The Wood Elf Councillor and Father of the three
  • The Sister of the three, attuned to fire
  • Fire’s Cambion boyfriend
  • The dwarf marshal
  • The Executioner
  • The Unknown Trickster Priest
  • Israfil’s Lover

We got a few more when we did background connections, but at this point I am crazily tired, so that will have to be another post.



Chargen Notes for the Thaw

Doing chargen today, so just throwing up some notes.

The ice came north maybe 2000 years ago. Before that time, things were normal enough fantasy, largely dominated by a number of human cultures, regular D&D races, stuff liek that.  The Advancign ice changed all that, rolled over the bulk of “civilized” land, pushing them north to the edge of the desert and into a very narrow band of livable land. This lead to a lot of conflict over limited resources, and by the end there were only three major human cultues left (one of which being those who live north past the desert) with remnants of a few more.  As the ice receded, these human nations have aggressively expanded to fill the space.

For ease of use, we’re going to use real world culture as touchstones for the humans.  One will be roughly Byzantine, one is TBD but India and the Americas have been floated.  The cuture north of the desert may or may not enter into play, but in my mind they’re Mali.

Other peoples found solutions to the ice.  The Dwarves simply dug.  Some stayed close to the surface, but others dug deep,founding great cities in the warmth and light of the depths. The dwarves are doing ok. 

The Halflings found some way to shape the ice (or bargain with it, some say) and it formed great bubbles over their shires, turnign them into a combination of fortresses and arcologies. Culturally, the Halflings are going to be very cinematic-Japanese influenced, and yes that means halfling Samurai.

The elves split. The High Elves withdrew from the world save for a handful of watchtower. The Wood Elves adapted to the tundra and desert. Some elves walked out onto the ice and were changed by it. The elves do not speak of them.

Some humans apparently found life on the ice as well, but they have been changed by it. Blue of skin, with demonic features, they were the stuff of stories for centuries, but with the thaw it is beginning to appear that the tieflings have established a seriosu presence on the ice.

The thaw started about 50 years ago, and had proceded at a startling pace. Fast enough that stretches of land are still muddy barrens, and the very edge of the ice is a no mans land. The humans have expanded, the halflings are emerging, the elves are returning and the Dwarves are takign an interest in the surface again.  Treasures lost to the ice have emerged, but so have unexpected things, frozen elsewhere and pushed north to thaw. 

On the edge of the thaw is a town called Placeholder (a bureaucratic slip up that has stuck).  It is unclaimed, contested territory, and it woudl be of little note save for that fact that it is suspected that it is somewhere near the site of the city o [TO BE DETERMINED], the crown jewel of the old world.  Finding it and claiming it will be a triumph and, more important to the people of Place, will be an opportunity to strike it rich.  So the town has grown in fits and starts, and every year, the ice recedes a little more, people dig a little deeper and the town grows. And, of course, as it grows, so does foreign interest. No nation has a clear claim on Place, and nothing found yet has been worth pushing the issue, but they’re all watching very closely.

We have not explicitly decided what’s up with other races, though I’ll be shocked if we don’t see Warforged (whose origin will be a mystery). We’ve discussed the gods some (the original pantheon is based on the charactes from the Dungeon World game) but it (and the geneal role of magic) i still fuzzy.

Mechanical things I shoudl do:

1. More Warlock pacts

2. More Sorcerer options, because man, the PHB ones are way too little. 

GM Kit

So I found this at Wegman’s.


It’s twenty bucks, and it opens up like this:


So I gave the art supplies to my kid, and took out the trays and filled it up with…other material.

IMG_4732 This encountered a problem when it closed – dice and pencils spilled together. So I moved the paper down and kept the top for dice.IMG_4733

And now it closes up all nice.  IMG_4734

Now I need to decide what game to dedicate this to. It’s a shame Dungeon World is over, because I would totally have used it for that (and I suspect it’s a little bit too small for D&D).

Anyway, fun little project, took maybe 5 minutes, so I figured I’d share.

Procedural Fights

So, here’s a thing.  Imagine a simple 3 zone fight:

Fight Map

Easy to map, easy to adjudicate, but the thing that kind of struck me is that if I don’t want to draw a map (even a simple one) I could really just represent the fight like this:



I admit, this has a certain appeal, since it uses the tools that I have on hand, and for a game like Dungeon World, where I’m really just needing to keep a general sense of the fiction, it has a loe of appeal.

But that got me thinking and it struck me there’s no reason you can’t do, say:


This is very rough, but it strikes me that this becomes a useful way to handle states and communicate threats (or signal hard moves) dynamically. In my mind, preparing means the goblin is about to unleash a whammy, and unless Finn or Liz do something about it (but to do so means not focusing on more immediate threats).

I need to chew on this a bit more. I’m not sure if this can be standardized enough to be reproducible, but this is something I’m going to keep in mind for future scenes, especially those with many moving parts but less strict geography (such as a large social event) where position on the chart could also be a measure of progress.



Final Dungeon World Session

Today was the last session of my Dungeon World game. We ended things very dramatically, with the destruction of the universe. The characters from this game are probably going to be the pantheon for the D&D game I’ll be running next, and I’m always a fan of that sort of continuity. Good endings all around, including at least one heroic death. I was most happy to reveal that Iggy the mule had been a dragon all along, largely because that explained why he had consistently been the most effective member of the group. [1]

I learned a lot over the course of running this, and there are definitely some things I’d do differently. I have a much more comfortable relationship with the system now, which includes a much stronger sense of what works for me and what I’d change. That said, there are definitely a few lessons I’ve taken away for any future games of Dungeon World I run or play in.

#1. Be Stingy With XP

In retrospect, advancement may have been my least favorite part of the game. The difference of the best bonus going from a +2 to a +3 is really huge, and the general improvement in stats meant that the awesome game-driving goodness I got out of bad rolls in early sessions kind of ran out of steam. The addition of moves was fun at times, but the most interesting ones often felt like things that should have been part of the class to begin with, so that took away some of their luster.

Barring a complete revamp of advancement (which I wouldn’t rule out) I would be more conservative with XP sometime. My default was that if the advancement questions could be answered vaguely yes, I would give the XP. If I’d been stricter, it would have at least slowed advancement down a little.

#2. Bonds Break Down

As written on the character sheets, the bonds will totally hold up for a quick game, but over the course of the campaign, they need to evolve. This is exacerbated if, as in my game, the cast of your game changes regularly.

This has play problems, but there’s a weird practical problem too – it violates the cleanliness of the character sheet. One of the great things about DW is the self-contained nature of the character sheet. Things are largely static and binary – checked or unchecked – with only a handful of values that can be changed, and those only occasionally. The character sheet is designed to hold the starting bonds, but once you’ve moved beyond those, the game has no physical place for them.

There are a couple possible solutions. I might use a bond sheet – a dedicated extra sheet that explicitly replaces the bond section in the sheet. It’d be lines and checkboxes, and when a bond pays out, you check it off, take your XP, and write a new bond.[2] Alternately, keep the bonds on index cards so they can be shuffled, dealt around and physically manipulated in play.

All that said, there is very clearly a trick to writing good bonds, as evinced by the uneven nature of bonds out there. Some are clear an obvious play drivers. Others may not push play, but can establish an interesting truth or dynamic. And others just lie there like a turd on the lawn. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any simple rule of thumb that makes for grippy bonds. That might merit more thought later.

(By extension, bond ratings get really weird over time, but that’s a simpler problem).

#3. Hit Points are currency, not description

There is a whole discussion to be had about the nature of damage in Dungeon World. it has some definite issues, especially when the dice get swingy. This is hardly unique to DW, but it’s a bit of a hurdle. I get why they moved away from the simpler wounds system – damage dice give a sense of greater granularity, and they give a chance to use other die sizes. But I feel like there needs to be a middle ground where we don’t have enemies still int he fight because the PC rolled 2 points of damage too few.

But the issue of PC damage and enemy HP are easy to fix, it’s the reverse that’s complicated. Random monster damage is a weird absolution of GM authority over pacing to the whims of the dice, and some folks might find that more fun, but it feels awkward to me. Specifically, damage feels like a one-size-fits-all solution to a pacing problem[3], and it has the problems you could expect. I found damage got a lot more interesting when there was something at the bottom of the HP pile that the player could do (like sacrifice armor or take conditions rather than go straight to taken out).

In retrospect, I actually wish I’d cheated a bit more on monster damage. Not, like, totally arbitrary cheating, but coming up with categories of damage relative to hit points to get a similar effect as optimal damage play, but with less swinginess. Min-mid-max damage did me well enough, but I didn’t fully appreciate the problem I was solving when i started using it (and will never stop).

There are some corollaries to this, the two big ones being Armor matters a lot[4] and the second that I am not 100% in sync with DW combat (still working on the latter).

In any case, I imagine I may have some more thoughts once I’ve had time to chew on things, but those three were very much top of mind today.

  1. We had a few players who couldn’t show up, so their characters were laid out on the table to be grabbed for flashbacks and hooks in.  ↩
  2. The ability to write a new bond with the same character would be a requirement for getting the payout. If the bond has not lead to a next step, then it hasn’t really been tapped.  ↩
  3. It also casts into sharp relief that combat is the one area where we discard the principle of letting a roll stand.  ↩
  4. One curiosity. In our last session, every character’s armor value was either 1 or 4. That seems weird. On some level, I wonder if Armor should be handled like weapon damage, by class rather than by gear.  ↩

Setting Architecture

For many years, my white whale was to design a good game specifically for capers. I loved the idea make it difficult, but in the end Leverage was the game I wanted it to be, so I laid that to rest. For a while I was adrift, but I have settled on my next whale – a setting as playable as Feng Shui.

Feng Shui is brilliant (this is all predicated on some familiarity with FS – without that it may not make much sense) for a lot of reasons, but the setting in particular is friggin genius for reasons having nothing to do with its badassness. Structurally it allows:

  • An infinite diversity of potential backgrounds (from one-off junctures)
  • Modern day setting which is not disrupted by extreme events in play
  • Isolates characters who are “in play” from the rest of the setting (via timeline shifts)
  • Incredible diversity of supporting characters
  • Clear objectives for action (Feng Shui sites)
  • Complicated problems which can be solved with fighting
  • Trivally addresses transportation issues
  • Setting can be changed by players non-disruptively
  • Player accomplishments have a concrete impact on the setting, but that impact does not depend on the setting details.

Note that none of these are specific to the details of the setting – you could swap out the Lotus and the Architects with Vampires and Werewolves if you wanted, and it would not change that. Those are details poured into the magnificent architecture above.

Let’s contrast that with a generic supers setting. Such a setting certainly allows a similar diversity of characters, and it probably addresses transportation and isolation issues. It might offer clear objectives for action in a limited way (stop the bad guy) but that’s not super robust. But the setting probably doesn’t help much with disruption – either players don’t really change the status quo, or they do change the status quo, and that makes for a lot of work. If the setting is well thought out (say, something like Abberant) or has a mythology that underlies its superheroics (like a unified source of powers) then it might fill in those structural gaps with specifics, but those require details and buy in. If you can solve those problems on a structural level, it’s easier to get buy in.

This is not to say you’re goign to get a better game with Feng Shui. It just means that Feng Shui’s setting makes certain parts of your game’s job easier (in much the same way that, say, the xistence of dungeons makes runnign your D&D game easier). And easier is pretty appealling.

Anyway, I’ll be noodling on this for a bit.

Natural Approaches

Off to Metatopia tomorrow, so here’s a quick one for Fae and other approach based games.

When I use approaches, I may follow the rules as written for the mechanical effect (aspects, boosts, damage etc) but for the fiction, I do something else entirely.

First, I figure out how many approaches are relevant to the roll. It’s rare that they’re all relevant, but usually there’s at least 2 or 3 in play. Like, if the player wants to break someone out of jail, they probably want to be sneaky and careful (or maybe flashy and quick.

If they get a marginal success (0 or 1) then they succeed at whatever approach they took. Each additional step of 2 (so 0–1, 2–3, 4–5 etc) means than they succeeded in one more approach. So if the character rolls sneaky to bust out their friend and rolls a +1, then they succeed and are sneaky, but not careful, so they leave some evidence behind. if they roll a +3, then they’re sneaky AND careful, but it takes a while. if they roll a +4, then they’re sneaky, careful and quick.

I don’t necessarily articulate the mechanics of this because they’re a guideline. Instead, it all comes up in the fiction.

Note that when I do this, then the choice of approach matters insofar as a non-useful approach means your initial success is not going to help much. Let’s say I try to smash and grab my friend out, so I use forceful – even if I succeed with a 0 or 1, I’m not Sneaky OR Careful OR Quick so there are going to be consequences to this approach.

Effectively, it fills a similar niche to the *world 7–9 result, just on slightly more constrained lines.

Anyway, just a trick.

Minor Warlock Tweak

Hmm. Was just looking through the Warlock in a bit more detail and realized something I’d overlooked in the Invocations. Basically, each pact has an invocation which is so awesome that there’s pretty much no reason NOT to take it (Book of Ancient Secrets, Voice of the Chain Master and Thirsting Blade). Not a design choice I’m terribly happy with – it’d be cooler if those were baked into the pacts – but now that I’m aware of it, I may need to revise the Pact of iron to add a similarly “must have” invocation. Arguably, Unyielding Armor of the Void fills that niche, but I put that in just to allow AC to be a bit better at higher levels (and still comparable with mundane equipment).