Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

Harm in Blades in the Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harm Duration Guidelines

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

Gatekeeping?

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

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

 

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

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

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

Pacing Mechanisms

Black and White Stopwatch IconLet’s talk about pacing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fate Tracks

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

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

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

Before I begin, a couple caveats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trigger

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

Progress

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

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

Duration

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

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

Fixed and Dynamic Aspects

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

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

What’s a Dynamic Aspect?

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

What is a Fixed Aspect?

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

How to Use fixed & Dynamic Aspects

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

  • Strong
  • Fierce Fighter

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

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

Free For All

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

Constrained – Capped

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

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

Constrained – GM Only

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

Blended

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

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

Pure Fixed

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

Other Options

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

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

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

 


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

To Be a Better GM, Play This Game

10 node diagram with connecting lines

Adapted from the HipBone games board.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackheels and Blackfingers

Another double dose!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Now on to the Blackfingers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Letter of the Law, Belated

I just posted about my Letter of the Law game of Blades and it was pointed out that I had not explained what that was, so, er, oops.

This is a game I’ve been running and playing online, which is a new experience for me.  We run over Google Hangouts paired with screensharing.  I looked into Roll20, but despite the presence of Blades-specific plugins, I haven’t yet seen the reason to add the extra layer of complication.  Instead, I’ve just been putting everything into Google slides.  If you’re curious, I’ve posted a snapshot here.

Short form, there’s a strange crew of Bravos operating out of night market, with a Cutter, a Hound, a Lurk and a Leech. The name come from their HQ, which is the rare books room of a bookstore called The Letter of the Law.

Three Times the Blades, Three Times the Dark

This is going to be a weird post – I started the writeup for Letter of the Law #1, but before I finished, we played the next Blackfinger game. And while this was still in progress, we did a pickup game last night. So I’m trying to catch up, so buckle up

Letter of the Law Ep 1.0

Plot-wise this was all pretty straightforward. The crew decided that they wanted some turf, but rather than just grab it, they decided they’d appeal to the next tier up in their neighborhood, the Schnaber Crew. The Schnaber Crew are mostly an extended family who load and unload the trains, and the PC crew has stayed on good terms with them, playing tithes and generally being good neighbors, so it was not an unreasonable play. And since the Schnaber crew had been having trouble with what seemed like a professional arsonist messing with them, they were willing to look kindly on someone who solved the problem for them.

Initial investigations didn’t turn up much, but one of the Cutter’s contacts was willing to offer information in return for a favor (busting up a restaurant which had snubbed her). The crew did, despite some complications, and actually turned a tidy profit on it, which in turn got them the location of the Arsonists hideout. THey flushed him out, took him down, and handed him over to the Schnabers, who in return “Made available” a protection opportunity, so the PCs now run protection for a noodle shop in Night Market.

Like I said, pretty straightforward. But the devil, as always, in the details.

  • We added a new character to the crew tonight, a Leech named Spider. She’s a former Railjack and keeper of her family’s box of ghosts, and she fit very tidily into the crew’s Strange rep. Chargen was interesting because we talked a lot about the line between Leeches and Whispers and what it means in play – originally the character was going to be a Whisper, but some back and forth eventually lead to Leech.
  • I gave all the characters a second playbook move for free. This was kind of a taste thing, but for me, the second playbook move is kind of what firms up a lot of the character ideas, especially in the case where the player has taken the default ability. It’s not a huge mechanical difference, but I was happy with the outcome.
  • There were two jobs in the evening – smashing the restaurant and grabbing the arsonist. The latter was very successful (the dice were on fire) but I think the former was better play. I allowed too much planning to happen the second time, in part because I think I set the situation up poorly. It went ok, but it was education in terms of striking the balance of how much detail is an is not helpful. Most critically, It underscored that I need to make sure the opportunities are implicit in information gathered, even if it’s not obvious in the questions the players ask.
  • Hunt picked up an extra layer of utility when we decided it was a totally valid skill for laying a false trail, which is a useful heat-reducing activity.
  • I am struggling a bit to try to figure out which handles I’m supposed to use to push. The game gives me a ton of tools for pushing back on the characters, but they all rely on player initiation. That’s not bad per se, but sometimes I want someone to come in through the door, guns blazing.
  • Bravos seem to tend towards short jobs, but I think my players are more inclined towards long ones, so I need to figure out how to strike that balance.

Blackfingers Ep 4

The job itself was pretty straightforward. The crew had just expanded (reached tier 1) but had emptied our coffers to do so. We also had a demon waiting for us to do the job for him (to destroy the unkillable industrialist, Slane). After reviewing options and a bit of research, we decided to go after Slane’s payroll and kill two birds with one stone. Having identified that his vault (and his quarters) were beneath his ironworks factory, we had a target and began the infiltration. The Spider & Slide remained outside (largely contributing via flashbacks) while the Lurk, Cutter & Leech snuck in, broke into Slane’s chambers (discovering the demon there, profoundly uninterested in their activities, and implicitly explaining both where Slane’s luck came from and the demon’s motive), discovered the vault, took what they could and wrecked the rest. The whole job went smoothly, and Slane just had to take out a substantial loan to make payroll, and we know that next session is going to jump right into sabotaging his next delivery of ship-plates to keep him from getting paid.

Again, details:

  • This was the longest job we’ve done yet, which was interesting, mores because it’s the second “long” job I’ve done, with the curious overlap that both were effectively infiltration dungeon crawls. This ended up being something to chew on as I considered job length for the Bravo crew.
  • It was observed that the Spider and the Slide are effectively a project manager and product manager for crime.
  • In the intervening time since the last job, I have internalized a lot more of the game and setting, which naturally makes everything more awesome.
  • We determined that the coffee-equivalent in Duskvol is a fungus base brew called “Shoe” because it’s brewed in big pots of dark liquid, and there’s no guarantee regarding what’s actually in the pot.

The Blackheels

This game was entirely unplanned. We had some friends over and had just finished playing Machi Koro, were deciding what to do next, and opted for a game of Blades. We had 5 players – two from Blackfingers, one from Letter of the Law, and two who had never even seen Blades before. So we did the whole nine yards – chargen, crew gen, setup, job and downtime. Whole thing took maybe 3 hours?

Was a crew of Shadows with a lot of ghosty stuff, but with a Daring reputation. They also took the “Boat” upgrade, which ended up being kind of awesome and a natural reason for one of their favorable connections to be with the Gondoliers. The crew was a Cutter, Hound, Spider, Slide and Lurk, all Duskvol natives of various types. On a night when the Spirit Wardens were swamped by an industrial accident, the Gondoliers needed one dead body swapped with another one in a Bluecoat stationhouse. The Slide provided a distraction while the rest of the crew snuck in, but unfortunately that also lead to a bit of a riot among the drunk tank, which escalated when the drunk’s friends showed up. The Slide made several (successful) desperate rolls amidst the impromptu riot while the rest of the group deal with a body mix up and an inaccurate map of the sewers to eventually find their way out as one of the bodies left behind decided it was time for some ghostly horror show action. But, hey, they got paid!

  • Despite the absence of a Whisper or a Leech, they crew kept pitching ideas that really would have suited those playbook better. Not sure what that says.
  • As with the Letter of the Law, I allowed 2 playbook moves at chargen, and I no longer have any concerns about doing so – it’s great.
  • I leaned a little bit more on group actions in this session than I have previously. Worked very well for keeping things moving, but they’re a little bland in action.
  • The dice favored the players. I was aggressively leaning on non-6s to speed up the timetable on the ghost showing up, but they just kept hitting 6s. I probably need to start planning for that, since this is not the first game that this has happened in.
  • I remain floored by how well Blades handles pickup play. I love pickup play in general, but Blades has some secret sauce that makes it really shine in this way. There are a ton of things that contribute to this – Setting design, Job-centric adventures, flashbacks and more – and I look forward to sussing them out and seeing if I can make other games comparably easy to play.

Blades of Fate

Blades in the Dark clarified a lot of things that Fate 2 and Spirit of the Century tried to do, so I decided to steal its tech to go back over some old territory, mashing it up with new technology where appropriate. So, hang on tight.

Adjective Ladder

Step 1, we’re compressing the adjective ladder as follows:

X: Poor
0: Mediocre
1 : Fair
2: Good
3: Great
4: Superb

And done. You can extrapolate from there if you want, but that is the functional core, and to take it a step further, Poor and Superb only show up in very rare circumstances, so the heart of things is 4 steps. Compressing the ladder also means the honorable retirement of “Average” and years of discussions regarding the difference between mediocre and average. It also, I think, improves its conversational usability.

Dice Rolling

When you roll dice, you roll a number of Fate dice determined by the ladder, and pick the best one.

If it’s a (success) +, then you succeed, free and clear, based on the terms of the roll (more on that in a bit). This maps to a 6 result in BITD. Multiple Plusses map to a critical success.

If it’s a blank (Mixed), then you succeed, but the GM gets to complicate it in some way. This maps to a 4-5 result in Blades.

If it’s a – (Failure), then you fail, and what that means also depends on the terms of the roll. 1

Poor and Mediocre rolls

If you’re mediocre, then roll 2df and keep the lower. If you’re poor, you just fail.

Skills, Approaches and Whatnot

In fine Fate tradition, this supports any kind of descriptors. Skills? Approaches? Professions? Descriptors? Whatever. They all work. But you need to pick one and run with it.

For illustration purposes, we’ll use approaches, but please consider it the tip of the iceberg. This will be largely familiar to anyone who has played FAE, but the main difference is that in addition to each approach having an implicit meaning, it has implicit failure states and these matter a lot on mixed rolls and failures.

For example, the failure states on Flashy are 1) Insufficiently flashy and 2) only flashy. That matters because by default, a mixed means that you were flashy enough, but the problem emerges because you were insufficiently Quick or Forceful or some other approach that might have mattered. In contrast, a full on failure is a failure to be sufficiently flashy.

These failure states are not cast in stone – situations can freely generate exception – but they exist to give a more clear default for how to handle what approaches mean.

Terms of the Roll

When a roll is made, it has 5 components:

  • Action – The action and situation being described which has called for a roll
  • Effort – The skill/approach chosen and the dice rolled
  • Position – how risky of controlled the action being taken is.
  • Effectiveness – How well or poorly this is likely to work, under best/worst circumstances.
  • Effect – The result of all this. IN the case of a success, this is synonymous with effectiveness.

Action is either a whole thesis topic on its own, or perfectly obvious. The player has described an action which is sufficiently interesting, uncertain or both as to call for the dice. For simplicity, I’m going to treat this as a solved problem

Effort comes from the player: They choose which approach they’ll use, roll the dice (and make any decisions related to that die rolling).

Action and effort combine to determine position (which will be Free, Controlled, Risky or Dangerous2) and effectiveness (which will be potent, normal or weak). These are determined and communicated by the GM as a logical extension of the action and effort.

This is, explicitly, where the “That approach is bullshit” filter gets applied, especially with effectiveness. The GM is free too (encouraged even) to diminish effect for approach selections that seem more made for the bonus than the in applicability of the situation, and by the same token to reward clever approach selection with greater effect. This should not turn into a game of “Read the GMs mind for best bonus” but it should be resolvable within the bounds of common sense.

Position

Position impacts the effects of failure. Failure or mixed success from a controlled position tends to be have minor consequences. From a risky position, they can have more teeth, and from a dangerous position they can be very costly indeed.

I’m not going just restate the table from Blades, but in my head, that’s what we’re talking about.

Effectiveness

Just as position shapes failure, effectiveness shapes success. The best roll in the world can only make so much of a difference with the wrong tools solving the wrong problem. But on the flip side, the right tool for the job can make heavy work light. In practice, a success with potent effectiveness will have more punch (a free crit, perhaps) while weak effectiveness means diminished effect. Again, mentally I’m just stealing the Blades table for this at the moment.

Do we need both?

In theory, you could collapse position and effectiveness. You wouldn’t want to have a 3×3 grid because that would be fiddly, but a fair number of games tie effectiveness back to effort (by modifying the roll, with bonuses and penalties) and trust the diminished roll to reflect the diminished effectiveness. Of course a lot of games do the same with position as well, so we could arguably ditch both in favor of a more robust effort model. That kind of works, but it’s very game-logical rather than human logical.

But even beyond that, I like having the explicit GM tool to express an opinion. Explicitly calling out position and effectiveness forces a fruitful moment of clear communication between player and GM while providing protection against the rules getting too disconnected from reality.

The Free Roll

This equates to the Fortune roll in blades. A free roll has neither position more effectiveness (and is probably sketchy on action and effort) because it has no particular consequences, and is simply a roll the GM may call for to answer a question.

Crits

Success is more common in this system, but that’s fine – this is for somewhat friendlier games than those about cutthroat thieves. Trickier is the fact that it means criticals are more common, so we’ll need to make sure their meaning is very clear. Not fully unpacking that yet, but planting a flag as something to come back to.

Scale3

As with Blades, Scale affects position and effect because it encompasses both, and carries them to a greater magnitude. The most obvious example of scale is size – a mouse has a hard time fighting a horse, or a soldier an army – but it can encompass much more than that, including available time, appropriate tools, correct understanding an so on. Sometimes scale exists on a ladder (such as with tiers of size) but sometimes it’s a simple gateway (like a language barrier). It is a many faceted thing, but when something is impossible, the barrier is usually scale.

Functionally, scale’s impact on position and effectiveness are independent and situational. Sneaking past a giant robot might be no harder than usual, but punching it is unlikely to have much effect.
Now, the nuances of scale are very much a genre driver, because it speaks to the kind of situations that can come up and what things like a “fair fight” look like, so with that in mind, treat this generalization as very suspect.

Scale has only two meaningful steps (beyond parity): “Oh Crap” and “Oh, hell no”.

If it’s Oh Crap, then the scale difference is enough to make your life harder. One guy fighting a gang. One chef cooking for a wedding. It’s doable, but harder. This can imperil position, reduce effectiveness or both. If it’s Oh Crap for the other guy, that’s effectively reversed.

If it’s Oh, Hell No then you just don’t bother. You cannot fistfight an army, nor can you pick lock a bank vault. These are sufficiently out of scope that failure is presupposed and you go to the dice for things adjacent to it (like running away from that army you tried to fistfight).

Where this gets interesting (and genre raises its head) is where scale can be ignored or altered. A legendary bar fighter might be able to ignore Oh Crap in a bar fight. The god of bar fights might be able to punch an army (ignoring the Oh, Hell No).

Skills are flash, but scale matters

More critically, with planning and effort, a brawler might manage to get in front of an army at a point where they’re forced to come at him one at a time, overcoming scale with skill and cunning. It still probably won’t end well, but it’ll be a hell of a fight.

And that’s the rub. When we talk about “skill” outside of the RPG context, there is this idea of legendary skill, and legendary acts of skill, and when we map that to RPGs we tend to map that as very high values overcoming very high difficulties. The problem is that this only represents a very small subset of significant actions. Hitting a target can be dramatic an exciting, but it is a different order of action than, say, winning a war or curing a disease. There are entire categories of actions which are not resolved with a single act, but rather by steadily changing the situation so that something that started out as impossible becomes possible.

Scale is how you handle things like that and, critically, scale rules are how you communicate how important actions like that are to your game. Not every game needs a path to cure cancer or gather enough votes to become mayor.

All of which is to say that scale is a bigger deal than we tend to acknowledge, and how we handle it is a critical descriptor for genre.

Aspects, Fate Points and Stress

There is no mechanical reason not to port Stress into Fate. It’s not hard, and requires only a few decisions. The simplest model is this:

  • Fate Points and the stress track are now Stress Pool
  • Players may spend Stress to invoke an aspect to add a die to a roll
  • Compels replenish the stress pool.
  • Damage is taken to the stress pool
  • Consequences can ablate damage as normal
  • Devils Bargains effectively combine a simultaneous invoke and compel

This totally works as placeholder, but I’m going to put a pin in it because this is the the point where we need to stop and think.

Ok, So What’s The Point?

This text file had sat idle on disk for a while because I was not sure it was worth pursuing. It’s a fun technical exercise, but does it serve any real purpose? I couldn’t answer that until the other night, when we had a session of Blades where the dice were very strongly in our favor, and it pretty radically changed the tone of play for the session into something a little bit more cinematic and wahoo. Maybe not the tone we want in Blades all the time, but there are definitely games where that is exactly the tone I would want to hit. So that example persuaded me that there’s definitely room for this, but explicitly not as any kind of direct port, so I’ll be well served to re-examine any assumptions as I review them.

To that end, I suspect a focusing tool will be in order, so the next step will be, I think, coming up with an It’s Not My Fault variant version of this. It’s core system is FAE, but it may well benefit from a bit more structured play, and some concepts from Blades might help to that end.

All of which is to say, this is the rough starting point of an idea, and I’ll be refining it over time.

  1. Multiple minuses are not a critical failure because, if so, then almost every failure would be a critical failure. ↩︎
  2. I’m explicitly stealing Blades terminology here, but I’m also doing it by memory, so if you see a divergence from Blades, that is me making things up, not me pretending I’m not stealing from Blades. ↩︎
  3. I’m 80% convinced to rename this “scope” just to reflect how it’s used here. ↩︎