Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

Narrating from Knowledge

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trigger Tables

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

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

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

table with escalating outcomes from 1-10

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

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

Bonds in the Dark

I have one minor philosophical disconnect with Blades in the Dark – I think it does not do enough to encourage character’s connections to named NPCs. When a character starts, you have some great connections (ally, enemy, vice dealer) but those are all you’re ever going to have. That’s something I want more of.

Now, there’s a good reason for this disconnect. Blades is not about the characters as much as it is about the crew. Connections to individual characters detract from that model – it is the crew who should be establishing connections – and I completely get this. For example, much of why I want personal connections is to provide hooks for play. This is a time honored tradition, but it works just as well to create hooks for the crew.

And yet…

I really want to support more personal connections. I’m not saying it’s better, it’s just what I want. And not just for Blades – this is going to be even more important for other things I’m thinking about with Blades tech. So, here’s my idea.

Bonds

(Yes, I know, in PBTA this has a specific meaning, but it’s also a normal world, so I super don’t care.)

The first thing to do is talk a little bit the various types of relationships that a character might have with NPCs. This is a potentially strongly varied list, but we’ll keep it focused so we don’t wander too far away from the essential nature of Blades.

For simplicity, we’re going to boil all meaningful relationships in Blades into 7 categories: Stranger, Acquaintance, Associate, Ally, Friend, Rival and Enemy.

A Stranger is someone you don’t know, simple as that. You might see them or know their name secondhand, but they’re not someone who you would expect to have a conversation with or to have any idea who you are. You might have a passing conversation with them for transient reasons, but nothing that sets up a relationship. In the city, most people are strangers.

An acquaintance is someone you know well enough to know their name and say “hi” to. You could probably have a conversation with them in a pinch, but that’s about as far as it goes. It’s not much of a relationship in and of itself, but a relationship could potentially be developed. Most NPCs in Blades that the characters have interacted with would be considered acquaintances.

An associate is someone with whom you have a mutually beneficial relationship, such as someone you do regular business with, a fellow member of a club or something similar. While you cannot expect them to go to any great lengths for you, you can expect the kind of support that comes of being a good customer. That is, they won’t help for free, but might offer the occasional discount (and expect the same). A character’s vice purveyor is an example of an associate. Unmarked “Friends” on the playbook are also probably associates.

An ally is someone who can largely be counted on to watch your back, or at least give you advanced warning if shit is going down. The relationship may not necessarily be warm or emotional, but it’s largely a positive dynamic. Playbook “Friends” marked with an up arrow are usually allies.

A friend is someone who actually cares about the character, and may be willing to take non-trivial risks on their behalf. Real friends are a rare commodity in the city – they’re valuable as heck, but they also represent potential weaknesses.

A rival is someone whose priorities are at odds with yours. They may not be at direct loggerheads, but they’re perfectly willing to make your life worse and benefit from the problems that follow. They might literally be a business rival, or they might be someone who dislikes you but doesn’t necessarily care a lot about you. Playbook “Friends” marked with a down arrow are often rivals.

An enemy would actively like bad things to happen to you, and is willing to take steps to make them happen. How direct they’re willing to be about this depends a lot on their means, but even the most humble of enemies can make a lot of trouble in their particular wheelhouse.

EDIT TO ADD: Over at Google+, Allen Varney gave a WONDERFUL summary of these that I had to re-share:

Stranger: Wouldn’t recognize you on the street
Acquaintance: Can pick you out of a police lineup
Associate: Knows how to find you
Ally: Knows your other associates
Friend: Knows your address
Rival: Knows your address and will tell it to anyone
Enemy: You hope they don’t know your address

 

Establishing Bonds

Sometimes bonds (especially enemies) can be created as a result of play, but players also have the option of developing bonds through downtime actions.

To establish a bond, the player much choose an acquaintance with whom to develop a relationship. Most characters already have numerous acquaintances who have come up in play, and they can choose freely among them.

The first step is to turn an acquaintance into an associate. This is a simple project, usually requiring 6 ticks on a clock,(but see “social climbing”, below). Taking a downtime action to advance this clock will most often be a consort roll, but almost any skill could be appropriate if it’s a shared activity that gives you a chance to bond.

It’s a similar effort to turn an associate into a rival or ally. Then again, to turn an ally into a friend, or a rival into an enemy. It is also possible to reverse direction, and turn and enemy into a rival and a rival into an associate.

While players will mostly want to establish positive connections, the option for other relationships is there for the players who enjoy a more complicated web, or who want a little narrative control of who their enemies are. Plus, enemies tend to be a more reliable source of complications (and thus XP, see Bonds and XP, below)

And, of course, relationships – especially negative ones – can be the result of play or other clocks too. Even if characters are not seeking enemies, enemies may find them.

Fiddly Bits

New Bonds

Sometimes there are no existing NPCs of the type a character is looking to connect with. In this case, the character may need to turn a stranger into an associate. Mechanically, this is the same as any other bond creation (6 tick wheel, modified by class) but the GM is willing to require some pre-amble if the type of person being sought is not so easily found.

Social Climbing

It is harder to establish bonds with people who operate at higher tiers of society. If the target of a potential bond is associated with a faction that is larger than the crew, then the number of ticks required to cement the bond is increased by 2 for every step of difference.

Bonds and RP

While bonds can be an entirely mechanical exercise during downtime, it is entirely reasonable for the GM or player to ask for a brief scene to play out some of the interactions with the NPC. Don’t spend too much time on it, but have fun.

Bonds and XP

If you are playing with bonds, then update the XP question “You expressed your beliefs, drives, heritage, or background” to “You expressed your beliefs, drives, heritage, background or bonds”.1

Crew Bonds

It’s also possible for the crew as a whole to form a relationship with someone. This follows the same rules as individual bonds, but requires twice as many ticks. However, any member of the crew may contribute to the project.

  1. Honestly, even if you don’t use the rest of the bond rules, consider using this tweak if you have fleshed out your player’s connections enough that they are driving play to any extent. Enemies are much more welcome when they contribute to XP. ↩︎

Aspects in Broad Strokes

We like to encourage the use of colorful aspects that have a lot of meaning in them, but those are not always a good match for players who aren’t starting play with a strong sense of who their characters are and want to find out through play.

One option for dealing with that is aspects-on-the-fly. Leave your aspect slots blank and fill them in during play as inspiration (or need) strike. This is a lot of fun, but it’s a bit too extreme for some folks, and with that in mind, there’s a middle path.

At character creation, feel free to pick broad aspects – ones that may not have much detail, but convey the broad strokes of the character in your head. If you want to play a big, strong, heavily armored soldier type, then the aspects: Big, Strong Armored and Soldier will completely do the job, and will be entirely playable.

That’s all you need to do. However, at the end of any session, you may decide to elaborate on one of your aspects. This is not a complete re-write, but rather a restatement that maybe gives a bit more context. The idea is that the aspect is still perfectly usable as it was before, but now there’s a bit more to it. We know more about the character now.

Sometimes the path to this is obvious – it’s not hard to discover some background in play and change Soldier to Veteran of the Pijelo Campaign. Something like Armored, which seems external on the face of it, can be unpacked into talking about what the armor means (whose armor is it? What does it signify?).

Sometimes it might not be so clear – how do you elaborate on Big, after all? In those cases you might ask why the character is big, and end up turning that into Scion of Clan Bennek (since everyone knows the Bennek’s are huge!).

Or, honestly, maybe you never elaborate it at all. You are never obliged to do this.

So, this is a pretty simple trick, but I wanted to lay it out there for people who are maybe not syncing with aspects at the moment of character creation, but still want to take a swing at it. Feel free to start with broad strokes – you have every right to refine them as you play.

Letter of the Law: The One Where Everything Blows Up

line and node diagram of all the characters and groups in flight in the current game. A giant mess.

The Current State of NIghtmarket

In the last session of our Blades in the Dark online game, Shadow had come out of Ironhook with an interest in the oddly tattooed “octopus gang” that had hassled him there. Jacob of the Ink Rakes had agreed to provide some information in return for helping with a “little problem”, which they did (also helping out the booksellers of Nightmarket and securing their “informants” holding) and as a result tonight kicked off with the payoff from Jacob.

Jacob didn’t know a lot. They had picked up the nickname “The Eights”, though whether that was a play on words or a reference to their octopus tattoos was not entirely clear. They were a lot like other cults in the city – a little dangerous, a little crazy, mostly kept to themselves, recruited among the truly desperate and so on. They were unwelcome around the Docks, but not excessively so. But a few weeks back, they’d all vanished. Word was they had set up shop in Bonfire (the Iruvian neighborhood in Nightmarket).

Jacob also tried to get them to carry some of his magazines in their bookstore, but the Bonfire news was of most interest to the crew.

A bit about Bonfire: The Iruvian neighborhood in Nightmarket is one of the largest foreign districts in Duskvol (rivaled but it’s Severosi neighbor, Horsehoe). It’s name derives from two sources – the first is that it is probably the most warmly lit neighborhood in Duskvol, as there are constantly fires of every type burning, kept ablaze by a combination of nostalgia and tradition by those who no longer feel the warmth of the sacred flame. The second is that this fondness for fire means that there have been more large scale fires in this neighborhood than anywhere else in the city, and as a result it’s even more of a built-and-rebuilt warren than normal. The Red Sashes have a presence there (though they have not yet really conflicted with the crew) and one of the crew members – Thorn – is a member of the community of…peculiar standing.

The crew members hit the street to find out more about what was going on. Shadow’s bluecoat contacts had little to offer, and while the Archimandrite gave Thorn some interesting information about the Cult’s symbol (it had been used by a cult squelched by the Spirit Wardens a century before) he had little to offer in terms of current events. He did, however, make a passing remark about a lack of ghost problems in Bonfire of late.

Ellis skipped the middleman and simply started beating the streets and found the cult’s hideout without too much hassle. It was a fire ravaged building that was too damaged for use but too intact to be easily demolished, surrounded by buildings in similar or worse shape. There were signs they’d put in some defenses on the lower floors, and that there had been a fight recently, but she couldn’t get much close to check.

Spider ended up finding out the most, partly through my bad memory. Her positive contact is Jul, a blood dealer. We had kind of wondered what that meant, and at some point in the past I’d decided that it means leviathan blood, but I entirely forgot about that, and just as well. Spider was mostly reaching out because Jul was Iruvian, but it worked out well. See, Jul runs an opium den where the drugs are cheap and the snacks are plentiful because the real price is the pint of blood that users leave behind, which is in turn mixed and provided for the customers in the back room, who are never acknowledged as being there, and who are largely Iruvian Vampires.

Another sidebar: Iruvian Vampires is, on its surface, a paradox. The sacred flame in U’Duasha consumes all ghosts created within the city, so you don’t get certain problems down there that you get in Duskvol. However, there is a small but robust ghost-smuggling business for the very rich and powerful of Iruvia who are near the ends of their life and would rather continue as a ghost rather than risk whatever fate awaits them I’m the flame. At no small cost, their ghosts may get bound, transported elsewhere (most often Duskvol) and released. At greater cost, further arrangements may be made. The Iruvian vampires of Duskvol are an association of those who have paid this greater cost, and in many ways they are very much the iconic image of elite, powerful vampires hiding in the shadows. This is all fairly secret (for good reason) but the crew is tied into this sort of action.

Jul knows a bit about the cult, enough to dislike them, and it comes out that the reason for this is that they make his clients (with a glance towards the back room) nervous. Spider tries a consort roll to get an introduction to a Vampire, and succeeds, but he owes Jul a favor as a result. Jul agrees to speak to his clients, but sends Spider home while he makes arrangements.

The vampire who arrives at The Letter of the Law is a surprisingly young looking Iruvian man who seems utterly delighted at the theatricality of the secret back room. He introduces himself as Lor Ankhuset1, and is delighted to meet them. Negotiations follow, and the Vampire is willing to share what he knows in return for three favors to be named later.

Surely no problems will emerge from that.

The vampire revealed three things:

  1. The eights and the red sashes had clashed earlier. Smart money would have been on the Red Sashes, but something happened inside the Eight’s HQ which lead to a drastic reversal.
  2. The eights were spending clean money – that is, they had fresh-pressed silver. The subtext is that they had some manner of sponsor, someone rich enough to have access to the money, and highly enough placed to not even realize why that would be a problem.
  3. Most critically, there were now no ghosts in Bonfire. Lor could not explain why or how, but they had started vanishing shortly after the Eights set up residence, and the Vampires were starting to get very nervous because things felt wrong to them. The Spirit Wardens would probably be very interested in this if they found out, but since this had actually meant less work for them, they hadn’t noticed that in the way they would have an uptick.

So, this was pretty clearly bad, but it was hard to say how. Spider confirmed the absence of ghosts personally, and even went to far as to find another ghost and bring them there, only to watch it get sucked away towards the Eights’ headquarters. Spider was intrigued enough to try attuning to the ghost field to see what was going on, which proved a not great idea as something tried to pull her soul right out of her body2. She kept it together, and got a sense of a beacon or vortex pulling things from the direction of the Eights, but she couldn’t get much closer and still keep control.

The crew did not fully understand what was going on, but agreed that it was almost certainly bad enough to merit drastic response. Discussion of bodies hitting the floor was had, and agreed upon. They would seed the building with incendiaries and the foundations with explosives. Ideally hey could flush out the cult before falling back on mass destruction, but it pays to be sure3.

Which is, of course, where things started going very, very wrong.

The crew split up, with Thorn and Spider heading for the sewers and Ellis and Shadow coming from the roof. The engagement roll came up a 3, so I decided that they were going to end up out of sync – a dangerous proposition when dealing with the kind of ordinance they were toting. The path through the sewers was not what they expected it to be, with numerous collapsed or blocked sections forcing a roundabout route. Meanwhile, Shadow entered through the roof, with Ellis in overwatch, and promptly went deeper into the building than was wise (because Reckless). A mixed prowl result let him place his last charge before he was set upon by a cleaver-wielding hull, and avoided getting split open by virtue of an excellent resistance roll and convenient armor4.

Cut back to the sewers, where Thorn & Spider are setting charges. Now, Spider has the Saboteur move, as well as three dots of wreck, so I extend a lot of narrative leeway here, and I’m expecting no real trouble here, esp since Thorn is helping. On a mixed result, I’d be leaning on the time disconnect to create inconveneice, but I’m ready for whatever. At which point Spider’s dice betray her, and we get nothing but 3s and 2s.

So, GM hat time. They’re working with explosives, and that is an obvious oh shit roll, and it would be entirely inappropriate for me to ignore that. However, it had only been a risky roll, so it would be a bit of a jerk move to go straight to the kind of consequences this would require, so I gave them an opportunity. As the bombs started flashing, they had the opportunity to make a desperate prowl roll to try to get the hell clear.

Thorn got a mixed result and Spider’s dice failed again.

Thorn was easy to adjudicate – he was looking at 3 harm as the explosion threw him into something hard, but he managed to buy that down through a combination of armor and resistance. Spider was a bit more of a challenge.

See, confession, I like to push hard on certain issues as a GM, but I have never been a “killer GM”. In my philosophy of play, character death is frequently and indicator of GM failure. So my first instinct was to offer some kind of sop – have Spider get trapped or something similar – but that was not a good instinct. It did not respect the situation. So I took a deep breath and ignored my internal protest and declared “Level 4 Harm”, which is to say, a lethal result.

This was not the end of it. Spider had the opportunity to resist, and like the rest of her crew, had armor, and she actually had a decent reserve of Stress, so the odds were actually not that bad. It is, in fact, one of the nice things about Blades – as a GM I can push the hard, and it’s the start of the conversation, not the end.

Spider’s luck reversed, and she crushed the resistance roll with a crit5, but she and Thorn were separated. Meanwhile, Shadow was making a desperate prowl roll to dive out the window and escape the Hull. He critted that roll sufficiently hard that it absolutely demanded that he be diving out as the explosion rolled up through the building.

As Ellis watched this all, appalled, I turned to her and remarked “There is no way anyone in that building survived, but the bell is not ringing.” This brought a wave of consternation to the table, that only grew as I described that the fire was not diminishing, but rather slowly changing color towards blue, and resolving into a towering column of flame which was now drawing attention from…well, everywhere.

This was the get out of dodge moment, and the crew fell back to Sha’s Noodles, their rendezvous point. The fire was still burning, and the Spirit Wardens and Bluecoats were cordoning it off, but it was showing no signs of diminishing. What’s more, Thorn was finding that it caused his ghost-killing tattoos to flare up (though this fire felt cold and hungry, unlike the warmth of the true sacred flame), and Shadow determined that it was now drawing in ghosts from an even wider radius, perhaps even the entire city.

And that’s where we left off.

We resolved the job. No coin, 2 Rep, 6 heat. I could arguably have gone with 8 heat, because bodies dropped, but I consider that +2 to come from the bells and crows and extra attention over and above what’s happened in the job, and in this case, that seemed well folded into the 6. For the entanglement, we got Show of Force/Demonic Notice and both are so magnificently appropriate that I’m not sure which I’ll be kicking the next session off with.

Curiously, while things have utterly gone to hell, the crew is in decent shape. They’d been keeping their heat squeaky clean, so they could take this hit, and there had been decent margin for stress at the beginning of the night. However, the circumstances are dire enough that I am not sure there’s actually going to be any opportunity for downtime before we pick up again. If so, that 6 heat is going to be a Damoclean sword hanging over the group, and I’m kind of curious to see how that goes.

Good session all in all. Slow start, but the Vampire is going to absolutely drive some future fun even after the current problems die down, and I am 100% OK with that ending, though it was definitely not something I saw coming.

  1. This is one of the 4 Iruvian great houses, and specifically the house that Thorn is from a cadet branch of. If he’s not full of it, this and other indicators suggest this is someone of significant importance. ↩︎
  2. Shadow helped with this roll, with some Tycherosi blood magic, which also created an opportunity for the devil’s bargain that Shadow’s Shadow was going to mess with Spider at some point in the future, which was accepted. ↩︎
  3. There has actually been some internal debate about how extreme this solution was, with Ellis (as usual) being a voice of reason. Shadow had not weighed in yet, so I took an opportunity. See, Shadow picked up the “Reckless” trauma (which is super apt, and also plays into the fact that half the crew have the Daredevil move), and his player fully embraces it, to the point where I (virtually) turned to him and said “More bombs sound awesome” and he was all in. ↩︎
  4. Shadow has the Mule move (which drastically ups his load) and the crew has Bravos Rigging, which gives 2 more load for use with armor & weapons. Combined with the fact that he’s a reckless daredevil, we often end up with the most heavily armored Lurk in Duskvol. ↩︎
  5. The actual rules for how much resistance can reduce harm are intentionally fuzzy so as to account for a variety of situations. However, because my crew are a bunch of twins, I use a fairly mechanical approach to Harm – successful resistance can drop it a step, with each critical dropping it another step. Thus, with a critical and armor, Spider managed to drop the harm by 3 levels, and walk out merely “scorched”. ↩︎

How I Choose Aspects

Fred ran a one shot Star Wars game the other night night, using a Fate hack he’s been working on.  We had a ton of fun as a gang scoundrels and rogues one a mission for Maz around the time of the current films.  I’m not a Fate player that often, and I don’t get to play with Fred nearly enough, so it was a win across the board.  And, of course, it has me thinking about a couple of things, some of which may bubble up here, but one kind of struck me.

I’d given Fred a rough sketch for my character, and I’d thought about him some, but at the start of play I only had provided my high concept and trouble aspects.   This is not much of a problem – coming up with aspects on the fly is something I’m comfortable with – but it made me think a bit about how I do it, and I figured I’d share here in case it’s of any use to anyone.

Photograph of tented index cards showing the character aspects discussed in the body of the article.

My first aspect is my go to. It’s omething that so clearly reflects what my character is that I’ll be able to use it almost any time. This is usually the high concept, and frequently is some manner of broad role. In last night’s game it was Grumpy Old Soldier (Sol was his name) and it served the purpose well. It’s easy to express, and it was a fallback aspect on almost any soldiery situation, which was most of them for me.

#2 is my hook for the GM. It is something that I feel like if the GM knows she’ll have an easier time planning scenes or putting hooks in scenes for me. This is *probably* my trouble, but it might not be because I also have #3. Ideally I want the “if this, then that” to be implicit in the aspect, so the GM knows full well that if they lay down *this* then I will *that*. In this case it was Doesn’t want to care, but ends up caring.  Sharp eyes will notice that is different than the card (which says Does Not Care About You) because that was the public facing side – the reverse simply said “This is a lie”.

#3 is my Fate Point generator. This aspect is more or less carte Blanche for the GM to complicate a scene, and the specifics of the aspect communicate the *flavor* of the complications. It can be generalized (last night I had Worst. Fucking. Timing) if you have a flavor in mind, but another great way to set this up is as a consequence for past actions. One of the other players last night had an aspect that was effectively (“I stole a lot of money and a lot of people are mad”) which proved a font of complications.

#4 is what I consider the contextualizer. At this point I have enough of a sense of the character to be able to think “if I described the character to someone, what part of their story am I not telling here?” Then add an aspect to reflect that. Put another way, this is the “backstory” aspect, and it usually complements and expands on (or otherwise relates to) the high concept.  For me it was Imperial Elite, Republic Trash – he’d come from an imperial (formerly republic) military family and was fresh to the service when the Empire fell.  There’s a longer story, of course, but I don’t need to tell it all at once now that I have an anchor point for it.

#5 s the wild card. No guidance here, this is the slot to keep flexible (and maybe even fill in on the fly if your GM goes for it). I often look at this as my slot to see what the *table* needs, and if I can use it to connect to other players, that’s perfect. If the game is a one shot, then it might just duplicate another category. If it’s a campaign, then it might be something that reflects a long term goal.  In this case it was a bit of history based on a prompt Fred gave (“What’s a battle that sticks with you”), so I went with The Bloody Streets of Corsucant, since he’d been there and on the imperial side when the empire fall, and it wasn’t all singing ewoks.

That’s my fast and loose approach.  I should note, I rarely sit down and run through the list when I make aspects.  Rather, the first couple aspects often suggest themselves naturally, but then I end up thinking about #4 and #5 or so. At that point I do a quick mental inventory to see if I’ve hit all these notes.  Do I have a generator?  Have I anchored my backstory?   That is when these become useful prompts.

Final Caveat – this is just an approach to this. I’m not suggesting it’s optimal, it’s just a tool that might see some use.  Use it, abuse it or discard it, but hopefully, it’s handy for at least some folks.

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