Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

Weekly Roundup, July 31 2020

  • Fandom snagged the rights to the Dragon Prince RPG which is awesome in its own right, but Fandom is also currently home to amazing things like “Cortex” and “Cam Banks” so my expectations are at 11.
  • Washington Post article on the rise of tabletop gaming in the pandemic and some of the issues facing D&D
  • incase, who makes pretty good carry gear, has a $200 EDC kit (“everday carry” for the non-nerds) which seems decent, but most notably is apparently made of recycled bottles. This promotional article hits the high notes. Price is very reasonable in the fancy backpack space, but a little high for mortals, but possibly worth it for what it represents. I admit, I’m very curious about how these materials hold up.
  • Bit of material science nerdery – they’ve made a new material to resist cutting that’s going to be really useful for things like bike locks. As I understand it, because the core of it is less a matrix and more a collection of “beads”, vibrations get distributed and blunted by the material, so something like a rotary cutter will go blunt before this stuff cuts much at all.
  • Radical Focus, a pretty good book with an attached consultancy, has gotten active again because they released a new edition. One good upshot on this has been a pair of articles on feedback, one on the problems with constructive feedback and one on how to get people to give feedback. Roundup
  • Mark Richardson (my favorite RPG cartographer) has been posting his WIP for a post-waters-rise Los Angeles, and it’s delightful
  • Atomic Robo pin set kickstarter!
  • Even without Gencon, the awards march on. The IGDN awards have been announced, as has the Diana Jones award.
  • I’m a big fan of the term “security theater”, and now we have “hygiene theater
  • Apparently the Sentinels of Freedom game got released on the Switch yesterday, so I may vanish for a while.
  • After I talked about material components in D&D, someone was kind enough to share a link to a spreadsheet that breaks them all down.
  • Cool system for tracking D&D combat in text The model’s very applicable to other games, and also works very nicely with a kanban system.

The Cost of Magic

Class Symbol: Cleric | Dungeons and dragons classes, Dragon icon ...

So far, my longest contiguous play of 5e has been with my Cleric of Life, who has gone from 1 to 11. He’s a ton of fun, and I may ramble about him sometime, but he’s ben my window into something curious in 5e – spell components.

Now, to be clear, spell components are not a new idea (to me, or to D&D). The thing that I was offered insight into what the specific implementation of components in 5e. That said, let’s start from zero.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, casting a spell in D&D generally requires some combination of saying magic words (aka the “Verbal component”) making mystical looking hand gestures (the “Somatic component”) and waving around handfuls of weird stuff like toad eyeballs and such. These last are referred to as “material components”, and they’re what I’m talking about today.

In most cases, material components are mundane (if odd) items. For example, the sleep spell requires a bit of sand. This may sound like a bookkeeping nightmare, but for most spells, this is just all rolled under the idea of having a components pouch, which is assumed to have all your low cost components (which is most of them).

For a small percentage of spells, the requirements for material components are a bit more onerous. First, some spells requires components which are specific or costly. Specific components are usually tied to the spell – if you want to make a simulacrum of someone, you need a collection of hair, nail clippings and such from the target. Costly components are just what the sound like – for example Heroes’ Feast requires a jewel encrusted bowl that costs 1000gp to cast.

The other consideration is that for some spells, components can be re-used. For others, they are consumed when the spell is cast. This is not really a concern for mundane components, but for specific and costly components, it can have a big impact on how often you cast the spell.

In the game, they serve a couple of purposes:

  1. They’re thematic. The pinch of sand, for example, is tied to the idea of the sandman, sleep, dream and all that.
  2. They’re a practical limiter. If you take away a spellcaster’s component pouch, it greatly limits the number of spells they can case.
  3. They’re a potential gateway. If a spell requires a specific or costly component, then the act of getting that component is a potential driver to play. That drive may be as simple as “When we get to the big city” for something costly or may drive it’s own adventure if you find yourself in need of an archmage’s fingernails.
  4. They’re a throttle. Most spells can be cast every day without any kind of problem, but there are certain kinds of spells which get dull and fun destroying if they’re cast every day. These tend to be spells that provide information, give long-term buffs, or which create or recruit allies. Giving these spells a costly, consumable component should mean that they are only cast when it really matters.

These are really good design goals, and pretty well implemented. 1 and 2 very seamlessly enhance the play experience without any extra hassle. 3 introduces a little bit of extra bookkeeping, but it’s still less onerous than counting arrows.

But #4…well…that’s trickier.

The problem is not the intent – I’m all in for that – but the execution. Specifically, tying this mechanical throttle to money (in the form of costly, consumable components) introduces an array of problems.

For purposes of specific illustration, I’m going to use Heroes’ Feast, though almost any spell would work. HF gives the whole party a pretty nice all-day buff – it clears status effects, gives extra hit points, and gives a bonus on some saves. It’s a GREAT spell for the “we are going into terrible battle tomorrow, so tonight, we FEAST” moment in the story. But if unconstrained, well, just assume that any adventuring party would cast it every morning when they wake up, and it would quickly become very dull.1.

To balance this out, HF requires a jeweled bowl worth 1000gp which is consumed when the spell is cast. And that definitely is a limiter on casual casting. 1000gp is not a trivial amount of money, and locking it into the form of the bowl (which requires actually getting the bowl, not just money) also means there’s a specific opportunity cost to the choice to prepare for this spell.

There’s a logic to this, but it invites some tough questions. Specifically:

  • What is the right frequency that this spell can be cast at?
  • As an 11th level Cleric, how much money should I have in my pockets for things like this?

I’m gonna be honest, I don’t have answers for either of these. I might be able to vaguely handwave the second based on average treasure per encounter at that level, but that gets murky VERY fast.

But more critically, I’m pretty sure there is not and should not be an answer to #2. Money is a strong thematic element, and its presence or absence is something that’s going to vary greatly from game to game. One D&D game may be incredibly mercenary, with all money getting counted, banked and invested. Another may take a more Conan-like approach, with fortunes earned and squandered in rapid succession. Another may be as mercenary as the first, but have less financial success due to any number of reasons.

All these groups are playing the game correctly, but the second and third groups are going to have trouble with things like spell components, and I posit that either their GM will need to handwave a bit, or they’re just going to have access to less of the game (which equates to less fun by my measure).

This is because this is an untethered economy. See, D&D has a TON of economies – you only have so many actions, spell slots, attunements slots, time in the day and so on. When you make a choice, there is an implicit trade off in the choices you didn’t make, and that maintains a sort of equilibrium in play because the number of options does not dramatically change from moment to moment. These things are tied together.

Money is not. If one GM puts 100gp in a treasure chest and another puts a million, this doesn’t actually change the game much in any direct way. It can make a substantial difference story wise, yes. It can make a logistical difference, because gold is heavy. And, depending on the game, it will probably affect the flow of magic items.

But, critically, there was no cost to the DM’s decision (for good or ill). Contrast this with, say, the DM deciding which attack an enemy should use – it’s a constrained set of options, all clearly delineated, and the GM can use her judgement and the guidance of the situation to make the decision. There’s an economy to it. In contrast, the amount of gold in a box has no such constraints.2

Bottom line: There is probably some optimal balance of income which works with costly, consumed components, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it in play. Instead, these spells just become things I’m less likely to use (which is especially a pain for clerics, since a lot of their cool stuff falls into this category).

So, that kind of sucks.

Thankfully, it’s not an insolvable problem. We just return to the core purposes of material components – we need a throttle. Nothing says that throttle has to be shaped by money.

One option is to just rewrite all those component costs into something different, but that’s a lot of work and not terribly portable. We still want a generalizable solution, and ideally one which requires the least actual hacking to the system.

So, with that in mind, we look at the other implicit question: How much of a throttle is this supposed to be? How often would it be reasonable to expect to be able to cast one of these spells?

We could really get wrapped around the axle on this, so I’m making a leap here and saying “Every week or so”. It’s a bit of a gut call, but not entirely arbitrary. Since I’m starting from the cleric, I’m taking guidance from a few spells and abilities that have longer timers, like Divine Intervention, where you need to wait 7 days between uses. With that guidance in mind, I propose three options:

1. Simple House Rule

Special Ability: Divine Proxy

By increasing the casting time of a spell by 20 minutes, a cleric may cast a spell without consuming the material components, even if the spell usually does not say so. This ability only effects components which are monetarily valuable, not those which are unique to the spell. After a cleric uses this ability, they cannot use it again until seven days have passed.

Comments: This is probably the easiest solution, with the least bookkeeping. Note that it still requires that you have the components, which could still be a problem if the game is one with very little money. In that case, the ability could be changed to ignore the material component cost entirely, but in that case I would actually recommend that the components become rewards and objectives, since the default in this mode is that these spells are cast when the ability is available, but can – if desperate – burn the component.

Option #2: More Complicates House Rule

Special Ability: Devotion

Clerics have a reserve of points called devotion which can be spent in lieu of the gold piece value of material components. This reserve has a maximum value of the Cleric’s level x 20 and starts at zero.

Once per day, as part of a long rest, the cleric may pray to their deity and add a number of points to their devotion equal to level x 5. Any excess points are lost.

While this ability removes the need for costly components, these spells still require mundane equivalent material components, and as such will still need a components pouch.

For example: Zaldan is a level 11 cleric. His maximum devotion pool is 2200, and during a long rest, he gains 55 devotion. If he has 800 points in his pool and he casts Heroes’ Feast (which costs 1000gp), it still requires destroying a bowl worth 200gp to cast and reduces his devotion to zero. If he had 1200 in his pool, he could cast the spell using only mundane components, and be reduced to 200 points.

Comments: When I first considered this, I had the refill rate as 10x level. At that rate, a level 10 cleric could cast a 1000gp spell once every 10 days, and that seems like a very satisfying rate. Heck, it might still be right. However, the fact that this entirely obviates the need for material components makes this perhaps a little bit too easy to game. I slowed it down to 5, but it’s an easy knob to turn back.

Option #3: Object of Devotion

Add the following magic item to this mix

Focus Object

(Wondrous Item, Uncommon)

These items come in a wide variety of forms. Usually, they take the form of the material components they replace, but sometimes they may take other forms and sizes – it is not unknown for these to be built into architecture or statuary of sacred sites.

Each focus object acts as material components for a specific spell whose components cost more than 10gp and which are consumed in casting. When the object is used to cast its assigned spell, it acts as the appropriate material component, but is not consumed in casting.

Once a focus object is used, it cannot be used again for a week.

Note: If in a setting where there are prices on magic items, any price should be in addition to the cost of the components this item replaces.

Comments: This approach has a couple benefits. Items are MUCH easier to append to D&D’s current rule set without feeling hacky. Easier to homebrew into D&D Beyond too, if I decide to take a swing at that. This also has been explicitly written so that these could be used by other classes for other spells.


Personally, I’d probably recommend option #1. Option #2 feels like satisfying crunch, but it’s probably more work than needed. Plus, with #1, I still need to HAVE the material, which is reasonable requirement. However, if I ever get around to writing something up in DM’s Guild or D&D beyond, I’d use #3, just for enhanced portability.


  1. While I say this, I admit, I now kind of want to run a Hal fling game of EPIC BREAKFASTS.
    More seriously, this is also one of those 3e legacy items. In 3e D&D, there were a set of all day buffs for stats, and it started becoming a common practice to just cast them every morning. Formed the foundations of a lot of anti-fun.
  2. It also has vastly less guidance. There are charts and tables, yes, but they’re best guesses, and they have no space to adjust for context. The cash economy is a complicated thing, and the GM needs to balance both supply and demand usefully, and the right decisions for each game may go in radically different directions.

7/24 Stuff Roundup

Trying to keep fun stuff someplace other than twitter, for reasons of trash fire.

  • The magnificent Fate SRD Site now has a Patreon.
  • 1600 Occult books have been digitized and put Onlime
  • Really good Thread on pitching.
  • My copy of the Fiasco boxed set arrived this week, and I’m really enthusiastic to crack it open this weekend.
  • Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire came out on Audiobook and I’m pretty psyched. That is really good news, because it’s an AMAZING series and it serves more attention.
  • Really fantastic article on Design Thinking that cuts through the BS.
  • My ONE WEIRD THING to get people to see and think about your game. Also, a mammoth thread about RPG pricing.
  • Quest RPG has made a very well made SRD available, and it’s pretty nice.
  • Article on priming (that is, using cues to subtly direct choices) is an interesting read. The jump to subliminal advertising is less interesting to me that the explicit table technique, something I am pretty sure a lot of GMs have some practice with, if only unconsciously.
  • Julia Evans makes amazing instructional zines, which I love, but are interesting to distribute on modern platforms. I see a lot of them on twitter, or via her mailing list, but every now and again she does a summary post so you can review them. These delight me. The topics are great, but every time I see one they make me thing I need to try out the format.
  • Ulysses is my go-to writing app. It works in text, but has a lot of power to wrap it in, allowing me to do things like, say, these posts. It’s got many of the advantages of scrivener, but is definitely more lightweight and less featureful. One benefit of working in text is that collaboration has fewer technical challenges, and the Ulysses folks posted a guide on collaborating on docs over github, which is a useful read for any writing nerds who have been curious. The GitHub explanation works with almost any text docs, not just Ulysses, so if you’re on windows and using something like Writemonkey the benefits should be similar.
  • Neat collection of underwater photography of all manner of strange creatures.
  • Maps of Roman Roads in the style of the London Underground.

Swords of the Serpentine

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the Swords of the Serpentine (SotS) RPG for some time, and as part of the pre-order, they offered a pre-layout version. Normally, I ignore those and just wait — layout is such an important part of RPGs that I prefer the whole package — but I had some reason1to look ahead, so I busted it out and gave it a read.

Going into SotS, it had a few elements going in its favor and a few strikes against it. Against it was the Gumshoe system, which I’d never quite synced with. I genuinely love how it handles investigation and clues, but for more mundane actions it uses a pool system combined with hidden difficulties, which is a combination I don’t enjoy. However, Gumshoe has also gone through numerous iterations since the last time I looked at it, so I had hope.

In the strong positive column was the talent behind this — Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner. Kevin — in addition to being a great GM and a great guy — was the person behind Timewatch, another Gumshoe game which I’ve played (but not read) and which is an absolute delight. Emily is the author of such gems as Cute and Fuzzy Cockfighting Seizure Monsters but more critically she is the author of the Dungeonomicscolumns at Critical Hits. In these, she combines her sense of humor with her love of business to deconstruct Dungeons & Dragons ideas in fun and useful ways.

Lastly, the core pitch for SotS is Sword & Sandal urban adventure2, which is a mixed bag for me. I’ve never been much of a Conan guy, but I love Lankhmar to my very bones, so a lot was going to depend on the specifics.

So, how’d it work out? Pretty well.

Foundation

How a game book opens is important to conveying the heart of the game. You don’t want to overwhelm with details, but you want to convey what’s unique and interesting about the game and give a reason to keep reading. SotS does a solid job of this with a quick sketch of the setting and a few interesting high points.

The setting is the city of Eversink, a center of commerce and culture at the mouth of a great river in a world that has ancient horrors, active gods and all that jazz. The signature weird thing about the city is that the buildings sink over time. Slowly, mostly, and at varying rates, but enough so that the city is built atop itself many times over.

This is neat, and it allows for things like deep dungeons and weirdly conflicting architectural styles with a high degree of verticality while still conveying a sense of decay, all wrapped in canals and waterways. But the thing which really grabbed me was a small bullet point about a beggar selling rocks. See, the goddess of the city is one of commerce, and this has lots of implications which get explored later, but one impact in particular is that you can’t just give someone money, so beggars sell “lucky stones”.

That probably seems like a weird thing to focus on when there are other bullets about dark sorceries, mighty thewed warriors and so on. But as a reader of settings, it’s gold to me for a couple of reasons:

  • It conveys the presence of the goddess in a non-blatant way. Because this is a thing which is done, it conveys its taken seriously, which in turn suggests that the goddess’s opinion/dictates carry real weight even when there’s not necessarily an enforcement mechanism. It is rare to see religion conveyed as important in a setting with anything approaching a light touch.
  • This is a very human hack. There are still beggars and still people with money, and the pattern of interaction exists, but it adapts to this reality. It looks dumb, but it has a logic to it, which feels more real.

In addition to a quick snapshot of the setting, we get a quick summary of the system and one bit of guidance out the gate: when a player asks a question about the setting, the go-to GM answer is going to be “You tell me”. That this is one of the first things emphasized sets a good tone for the rest of the book, both because it’s a great technique, and because it’s an opinionated technique.3

Guts

Mechanically, this is a Gumshoe game. That tells you some details, but individual expressions of the Gumshoe system are – to my understanding, fairly different. I should also add as a qualifier, I’m not a huge fan of Gumshoe, and by extension I’m not much of an expert. It has been some time since I’ve read the guts of a Gumshoe game (rather than just the bits I was stealing) so I am woefully uninformed regarding what bits of a tech first showed up in what version of the game. I’m ok with that, but it means I’ll be speaking to the game as presented in the book rather than in general. You have been warned.

Short form: most of the mechanical meat of a character in Gumshoe boils down to ratings and pools in abilities, with pools generally starting out equal to ratings but varying in play. So, I might have the “Skullduggery” ability at 3, which means I have a rating of 3 and a pool of 3, and I might spend that pool for effects during the game.

Abilities break down further into investigative and general abilities. General abilities are pretty much traditional RPG skills: GM sets a difficulty (usually 4, but anywhere from 2-8) and if you have the appropriate ability, you get to roll a d6 and try to beat the difficulty. Before you roll, you can spend points from your pool to add +1 per point in hope of hitting the target.4

Much more interesting to me are investigative abilities. For these, the rating may have story meaning, but the most important thing is the simple binary — do you have the ability or not? These abilities aren’t rolled, and instead are used as avenues to give the players all the information they need to proceed forward in the game. That is, when the players are in a scene, and there is some question regarding next steps, the GM is mindful of the things they might know, and leans on the investigative abilities to find the correct avenue to get that information in the player’s hands.5

Now, because you don’t roll for them, spending points from investigative pools has a different mechanic than from general pools – rather than give a mechanical push, they give more of a narrative push. This may be some specific power or ability that is fueled by the spend, or it might just be an opportunity to get a somewhat better or more interesting effect out of an investigative spend, or otherwise just do something cool.

Gonna be honest — this is more art than science. The idea — spend these points for cool effects — is clear, but the devil is in the many, many details. This is an area where the table needs to really be in sync — I can see a read of the game where the “free” clue is always very minimal, and there’s an expectation of spend. But I can also see a read where the free clue is cool and rewarding, and spends are bonuses rather than buy ins.

There are a few further splits among the investigative abilities. First, you have a split between ‘social’ abilities (which anyone can take) and the class abilities, which are tied to a class. The class boundaries are fairly flexible, but there’s a payoff during chargen to stick to your class. Three of the classes are what you’d expect — Warrior, Thief & Sorcerer — and the fourth, the Sentinel, is an investigator/lawman type (which makes sense once you remember this is Gumshoe).

However, that’s not the extent of the split. Allegiances are another kind of investigative ability, representing relationships and social connections. They work like investigative abilities — you can get information from a friend, after all — and you can spend pool to call in favors.

This opens up the door to two clever mechanics. First, this also works for enemies. Having an enemy still gets you a rating, and you can use it as an investigative skill (know thy enemy and all that) but the GM owns the pool associated with the skill, and can spend from it to complicate your life.

Second, while allies and enemies are long-standing, this system also supports favors and grudges — these work like allies and enemies, except they have no rating, only a pool. After the pool is spent, the favors or grudges are resolved and do not stick around.6

It’s worth calling out that magic is an investigative ability, and it’s explicitly more potent than any other. This is because it comes with the cost of corruption — every time you use magic, you either corrupt the world or yourself, and it accrues. Magic is nasty, and I love it, but I also understand why they included optional rules for less potent but also less horrific options.

I’m talking a lot about the skills and crunchy bits, but it’s worth noting that these are arguably all a bit secondary to defining a character compared to the big three: Adjectives, Drives and Gear.

Adjectives are what they sound like. “Fiery”. “Strong-thewed”. “Mysterious”. They’re freeform descriptors for your character.

Drives are somewhat more interesting and take the form of your answer to the “Conan, what is good in life?” question. These are your characters three answers to that, and when you play to them, it offers a small mechanical benefit.

Gear is the most interesting of all. This is player defined, and is a list of 5 or more “iconic” items the character bears (and there’s a small mechanical bump for having them all on you). But what’s delightful is that these are truly freeform — they might be “My grandfather’s sword” but could just as easily be “My unwavering and poorly considered belief in the goodness of man”. I suppose one might call these descriptors, but framing these as gear is a lovely tough.

A few other randomly interesting mechanical tidbits:

  • There are a couple powerful wildcard investigative skills – Ridiculous Luck and Prophecy — which probably seem overly powerful at first glance. After all, they could be the way to find ANY clue. But they come with enough strings attached that I suspect GMs will delight in you taking them.
  • Wealth is handled interestingly. To reflect the idea that character fortunes will go up and down, it’s a value that’s set at the start of a game. Technically, it’s a 1-5 rating, but practically it’s a -2 to +2 rating, with -2 being “super broke” and +2 being “rolling in it”. In addition to giving some fictional framing, any rating other than zero turn into an investigative ability that works like an allegiance with wealth or poverty.
  • Oh, right, there’s combat. It looks like combat, with weapons and armor for physical combat, and equivalents for social combat. It’s equally possible to kick someone’s ass either way, but also equally possible to get your ass kicked. Weapons do damage which reduces hit point equivalents.
  • One interesting twist in the system is that it supports many maneuvers (disarms and whatnot) but does so in a fairly elegant way. Someone on the receiving end of a maneuver has the option of going along with it, or taking more damage. This brings some nice depth to an otherwise very straightforward system, and it also mitigates a lot of the potential problems that come with social combat systems and their use as coercion.
  • There are chase mechanics and they are ok
  • One specific SotS mechanic which mitigates some of my discomfort with general abilities being pools is the inclusion of refresh tokens. These are tokens tossed in a bowl when cool things happen (defeating foes, downtime and a very broad ‘GM Discretion’ category) which can be spent one for one to restore General pools. It feels like there’s a bit of an engine for this around combat (you are expected to spend during combat, but then get a certain amount back) but I’m not sure how well it holds up under general purpose usage. That said, it’s an obvious opportunity for the GM to reward playing to adjectives or drives.
  • The disease section is one of the best in the book, and I do not think I’ve ever said that about an RPG before. Each disease is actually interesting, tells you something about the world, and in many cases is more or less a self-contained plot driver. Super well done.
  • There’s a really neat section on traps, which tackles the issue of “traps vs. clues” head on.
  • Sorcery gets it own section, but I mostly just reiterate: it’s flavorful and awesome, but also dark and costly.
  • There are also magic items. They are, by and large, colorful and fun. Well, something like fun, but a bit darker.
  • Guidance on NPCs and Monsters also. This is all fine, but it’s one of those areas where the size of the combat system really shows its head — the ratio of combat guidance to anything else is skewed really heavily in favor of combat, and it feels like lost opportunity.
  • That said, the actual monsters are chock-a-block full of story potential, but oooooh boy do they skew horrific. That’s not a bad thing — it’s appropriate even — but is definitely sets a tone.
  • Lots of guidance on clues, which is good but also kind of what I expect from a Gumshoe game. Nice bit on Plot Maps as Dungeons (one of those idea that is always fun, but also works better on paper than in practice) which I’m very curious to see in final layout.
  • Oh, right, this does include the best rule ever for travel montages. Ask a player what bad thing happened. Ask a second player how it got worse. Ask a third player how it was resolved and what the consequences were. Simple, efficient, empowering and makes travel feel like it matters.
  • Couple guidelines on hacking the game. Most of them are around sorcery, but there’s a nice option for general pool spends to happen AFTER a roll, so they’re more like costs. I dig it. Also, some excellent guidelines on changing allegiances, since (as the game rightly notes) that’s a solid setting hack, and worth reflecting in the mechanics.
  • Some nice structural guidelines for solo play, differing levels of experience, or even playing a ghost if that’s your thing.

Details

Ok, with the gamey-game out of the way, we get into the setting. This is always a little tricky to write about because I don’t want to just summarize. That doesn’t do the setting justice, and I’m not sure it brings much value. But it’s also not super helpful if I just wave my hands and say “it’s awesome”.

And it is awesome, by the way.

Ok, for starters, the map is gorgeous. The electronic version is a colorful delight, and I cannot wait until I see it in print. It pops off the page with the kind of bold colors and strokes that my first impression was that it was the Jack Kirby school of mapmaking, though I’m not sure that makes any sense.

As a city, it has the things you expect, which is to say, neighborhoods with stuff in them. This is the mandatory city format we have come to expect, and it delivers. Where it gets more interesting are the elements that hold the city together, and I’m going to talk about the five which I think really bring it to life because they are ever-present but also constantly changing based off context.

The first two are physical features – sinking, statues and swans.

As noted before, the whole city is sinking, at various speeds. Importantly, it’s the buildings that are sinking, not the land, not the roads, not the canals. Just the buildings. This is weird enough in its own right, but it’s important to note that people are aware of this and do all kinds of crazy people-like stuff to deal with this, whether it’s shoring up the walls as things sink to create super-basements, to lifting a building on supports to build a new bottom floor rather than let a treasure sink. That this allows easy justification of all manner of subterranean adventures is delightful, but it ALSO means that the city has incentive to build up, so you get something that’s very vertical and difficult to navigate in places, which is pretty much ideal for a city of adventure.

The statues are a minor detail of great significance. See, land is at a premium in the city — even without the sinking, what land there is to be found is on a handful of islands drawn up out of the delta. Among other things, this means that there really isn’t space to spare on graveyards (and if there were, they’d be a health hazard due to regular floods). As such, the disposal of bodies is largely utilitarian7, but statues are a critical part of funerary rites. Every dead person gets a statue, whether it’s small or grand. And, critically, that statue is that person’s afterlife in a very literal sense. As a result, breaking statues is both terrible form and also a bad idea (because angry ghosts). Thing is, this has been true for a VERY long time, and as a result, there are statues EVERYWHERE.

Lastly, a small but delightful details is that swans are the sacred animal of Denari (the goddess who founded the city) and are both protected and common in the art and symbology of the city. They are beautiful graceful creatures and an absolute pain in the ass, running around picking fights, making noise and crapping everywhere. This delights me because it’s one of those details of something idealized being painfully mundane which I find quite evocative.

The other three elements are more conceptual — they’re related ideas which together form the main engines that drive interactions throughout the city. They are a foundation of commerce, the expectation of law, and the presence of divinity.

The reason these are all related is that they are all rooted in contracts and agreements, which are the metaphysical and metaphorical foundation of the city. Trade and commerce are forms of worship. This has interesting implications, like the beggars selling stones or the fact that churches are run like banks. Literally – churches are big-time moneylenders, but the vig takes the form of acts of devotion rather than more cash. This idea that everything can be (and should be) bought and sold in a fair and open way is foundational to almost all interactions in the city.

That foundation of commerce folds into the expectation of law. Certainly, law’s job is to provide an environment where commerce can safely be plied, but its priorities are also shaped by that emphasis. The very worse crimes in the city are things like counterfeiting and fraud, with things like murder, or even theft, coming as sloppy seconds. The idea is that these things (and the corruption of sorcery, which is also super illegal) are existential threats to the city, and everything else is mere inconvenience.

And yet, there are still LOTS of contracts written and lots of business done, which in turn demands people to do it. Government legitimacy flows from the handful of rulers selected by the goddess, but then distributed through delegation upon delegation, until it reaches the point where the state of committees and official bodies of law in the city can be as much a matter of improvisation as any legality. For players who love bloviating and paperwork, this is an absolute delight.

The last point, the presence of divinity, is a fascinating one. It is more implied than expressed in the setting, but the presence of the goddess in the goddess’s city has more of an impact than there just being some powerful npc knocking about. By existing in the city, you are sort of buying into the idea of the city. If you live there, you come to see it as a center of all that is good in the world. Some of that is just the normal hubris of any major city dweller, but some of it really seems to be that your world is shaped some to align with this world, and everyone’s just happier that way, right? It’s disturbing, and rightly so. The authors have deftly avoided the idealization of some crappy ideas by instead leaning into them as crappy ideas while also highlighting that crappy ideas are exactly what zealotry and jingoism buy into.

No subtext there, I’m sure.

Ok, given all that, did I forget anything? A few tidbits:

  • There is a small but delightful section on food carts and their perpetual guerrilla war against the city’s licensing constraints.
  • Actually, all the food stuff is great. Which is welcome.
  • So, the city has old nobility and new money, which is not an uncommon divide, but what’s noteworthy is that they do a good job of communicating how the old nobility might be broke, but still VERY dangerous.
  • The aspirations for nobility are a big theme among the monied, and the satire dial on this is turned up as far as it is with the nobility. My favorite bit is the “new old” neighborhood, which the monied are trying to build up as the classy place to live because they can’t get into the actual classy districts. The ways they do this are hilarious (to me) and utterly beg for fraud.
  • I made reference to the leadership of the city, and they merit unpacking. They’re a council of 13 secret rulers picked by the Goddess, any city authority flows from them. However, they don’t actually get any direct power or resources, so this is a thankless, exhausting job. It’s like being a Lord of Waterdeep, except it sucks.8 And, importantly, if a player wants to be one of these rulers, it’s entirely an option.
  • There’s a section dedicated to sports, as there should be, and the city’s signature sports are Eel Ball (sort of water-polo in small boats) and Profit Taking (two players start with similar resources and see who has the most value by day’s end). Again, sports are one of those things which bring life into a city.
  • The adjective for things of Eversink is “‘sinkish”.
  • There’s a lot of good guidance on things like War and Trade as things that drive play more than things you play directly. Very practical approach.
  • There’s a section on the rest of the world, and it’s fine. Nothing wrong with that, but to my mind its primary job is to provide a list of exciting sounding names of far off places to refer to while in Eversink. It accomplishes this admirably.

Conclusion

I enjoyed this book enough that I’m now going back and looking deeper into other Gumshoe products (because I have a better grasp on my objections). If the theme seems appealing, or you’re a fan of city games in general, it’s definitely a strong recommend.

Beyond my issues with Gumshoe, I probably have only one criticism, and that is that I’m not entirely sure how this runs as a group game. The source fiction is well suited to one or two heroes, and that campaign is easy to envision. I’m less sure about a group of five. Now, to be fair, the book offers some solid suggestions for reasons for a group to be together, and they’re genuinely good, but I’m just less certain how that turns into play.

Honestly, that’s a fairly small thing, and not really much of a ding in an otherwise really solid product. Trying to think about who I wouldn’t recommend this too, and the list is shorter than I’d originally thought. There are people for whom the Gumshoe system just brings along too much stuff, and they’re going to get less out of this. Transitioning from D&D will probably be a bit too much of a leap — there’s enough combat crunch to feel familiar, but the differences in tone (and especially the differences in magic) may make it a bridge too far unless those changes are explicitly what one is looking for.

To my experience, looking at it through a Blades in the Dark lens is kind of interesting. The two games feel like opposite sides of the same coin, and while there’s a bit of a lift in doing so, I feel that I could pretty easily run a Blades game in Eversink. Running SotS in Duskvol would be a little more work (Mostly dropping Sorcerers and some of their skills, but adding one or two more investigative skills to handle ghosts and sparkwrights) but not a huge lift.

Though, despite that, I did not end up using it for the game I’m running. If we were starting from scratch I might, but because the crew has become such a strong part of the fiction in the game, I need to stick with the system that supports that. Bummer, but so it goes.

Beyond that, the only real question is the final product, but based on Pelgrane’s track record, I have no reason to worry on that account. All in all, very glad I opted to read ahead on this one, and I can’t wait for the final product.


  1. Short form, I have a Blades in the Dark game that is going quite well, but the players REALLY like planning and more normal “walking around” play than the normal Job model. I took a look at SotS out of curiosity that it might be a better match. Didn’t really pan out, at least as written, but it was worth the read.
  2. In initial development, the game was referred to as “Gumthews” (as in, mighty thews!) and I remain sad that the name didn’t stick.
  3. Specifically, an opinion I like.
  4. I should note, when I say I don’t like Gumshoe, this is what I mean, because I genuinely love everything else about it. Specifically, the combination of hidden difficulty number and a limited pool creates a combination that I personally dislike in play, because it triggers all my opportunity/cost calculations in really unhealthy ways. This doesn’t make it bad, it just makes is something that rubs me the wrong way with great vigor.
  5. If you’re already a fan of Gumshoe, that might sound wrong.
    That I described the whole mechanic without using the word “Clues” may seem counterintuitive, but I’ll stick with it. For the unfamiliar, the usual explanation of Gumshoe is that investigative abilities are guaranteed to succeed at “finding clues”, but that description gets too easily hung up on the definition of “clues” to the detriment of the real goal – moving the game forward.
    There is reasonable space for discussion regarding whether this is a push system (GM finds ways to get info to the players) or a pull system (Players get info only if they ask the right question) but from my read, SotS comes down on the push side of the equation – players have plenty of opportunities to be clever without needing to outsmart the GM at cooperation.
  6. I love this mechanic. It’s used a little bit here and there in the game, but not nearly as much as I feel like it deserves.
  7. Though the rich, as ever, have a knack for ruining everything. The very wealthy can afford “in air” burials, where bodies are suspended in the air. This has resulted in local seagulls developing a taste for human flesh and occasionally traveling in bloodthirsty flocks.
  8. Also, it might all just be a giant scam, or a might be a mix of real and scams. It’s not like the goddess is providing paperwork.

Communication as Technique

A very dramatically explosive piece of mail.

I mentioned yesterday that there was another technique I wanted to write about which required some preamble. Now that the preamble is done, this is the original post.

This is one of my go-to techniques for making a world feel lived in, but I just realized that I’ve never actually written it down or even explained it before, so I figured I’d rectify that.

Very simply, when I introduce an NPC, I always put a little bit of extra thought into how the PCs will get back in touch with them.

Like I said, very simple, but the devil is in the details. The root of this comes from one of those awkward bits of simulation it’s thinking – in the absence of ubiquitous cell phones or the like, it is not very easy to actually coordinate communication with someone, especially someone who might not be inclined to give you their home address (and who in their right mind would trust the average group of adventurers with their address?)

The solution to this, both in game and in fiction, is to tie people to places. For some, this might be an actual address where messages can be sent, but the idea still applies to those looking to be more mysterious. They should still have some sort of anchoring location where they check in, so that if they need to be reached, there is a place to go or leave a message or the like.

This should be true even if they don’t want to be found. Even if they don’t want to communicate with the PCs, they presumably want to communicate with SOMEONE, and they will have at least one place for doing so, and that’s useful to know.

Now, there is plenty of space to elaborate on this idea. If we’re dealing with spies and intrigue, then characters will have entire collections of places they use in this way, plus various rules and precautions for dead drops, secrets, codes and so on. If you’re doing a game with intrigue elements, the topic of how things get communicated is a rich source of game material. But even if you set that aside, the most basic form of this technique will still help your game.

This is because anything that ties a character to the setting in a palpable way stands to enrich your game. If the NPC is tied to a place, they have indirect ties to anyone else tied to that place, and that’s incredibly powerful. Connections between elements are what make a setting feel alive, and this is an easy way to add more connections without doing any extra work. After all, this is a question you’d need to answer anyway, so why not do so usefully?

In terms of yesterday’s post, I’d call out that the question of how you communicate with someone is an opportunity to ask an asset question, one which connects a person to a place. You might link to an activated or potential asset as the situation dictates, but by the simple act of tying things in, you’re enriching your game.

Conservation and the City

I was writing up another technique I use to make cities feel lived in, and I realized that it rested on another technique that I should probably explain first, so that’s what this is. While this advice is technically for a city game, it’s applicable to any game where you might want to give the setting a rich, lived in feel.

Ok, so the first step in this technique is to keep a list of assets that you can easily reference. “Assets”, in this case, are elements of the setting that the characters have interacted with, most often in the form of NPCs, Places and Factions. The lines between these things can be blurry – a person might be tied to a place (like the bartender at a tavern) or a person might represent a faction – and that’s fantastic. Err on the side of making your list long. If The Church is a faction the group has dealt with, and Sister Annalise is a member of the church but also an NPC they’ve dealt with, list them separately.

I will note that in practice, I often find that a list like this ends up naturally dividing into “potential” and “activated” assets. Potential assets are ones which exist in the setting, but have not yet actually come up in play in any meaningful way. The table may know ABOUT them, but they have not really come up. Activated assets, on the other hand, are those which have actually been a part of play.

It’s reasonable to keep a list which includes both, since the list of potential assets can often be a useful source of inspiration. However, make sure to leave yourself space – as much as it’s easy to think that there will be a tidy movement of elements from potential to activated, I have yet to have a game where I do not end up with some surprises on the activated list.

Blades in the Dark offers very easy tools for creating this list. Every character starts with at least three potential assets (Positive & Negative contact plus vice dealer) and the Crew itself introduces one more. Past that, the faction sheet is one giant pile of potential assets.

That said, Blades also introduces one piece of caution – be conservative about considering assets to be active until they’re really been part of play. It is easy to look at character’s connections and consider them active from the start, but they’re really not until the whole table has gotten to see them in action. If you treat an asset as active before there has been actual play, you risk misunderstanding what players are actually interested in. This becomes an even more pronounced risk when you start thinking about an asset as active because you’re excited about it, but it hasn’t actually hit the table.

Ok, so you have your list: now what?

Well, this is the easy part – as a GM, you will frequently find yourself faced with questions that are best answered with an asset. That is, questions like “Who is interested in this?”, “Where is this happening?”, “Who else is there” and so on. You’ll recognize these as they come up because they are the questions you ask when it feels like things are happening in too much of a vacuum, and the world needs to be part of the discussion.

When your game starts and you come to one of those questions, you should activate an asset (or just invent a new one and add it). Having the list on hand will hopefully make this process pretty simple, and with practice it gets simpler. And, honestly, this is probably what you’d do anyway, just with a little more formality.

The real trick kicks in when you hit a tipping point in the number of activated assets. There’s no hard number for this, but it’s probably around three per player (including the GM). It’s easy to spot this tipping point because at some point you will have an asset question, and the best answer will be an active asset rather than a potential one. This is a good moment – at that moment, things in the game start tying together in a way that feels satisfying and organic. It rocks.

That is, however, not the real point of magic.

Real magic happens once you’ve passed the tipping point and you get another asset question, and it doesn’t seem like any of the active assets are a good answer. At that point, you must do the following:

Pick an active asset anyway, and run with it.

This may seem weird or unintuitive, but that is the point. This is a forcing function for you as a GM, because doing this will force you to create new connections that had not previously existed in your vision of the setting. This will shake up your expectations and make things feel more organic and dynamic, but it will also make things more fun for you as a GM as you try to figure out how to Apollo 13 this stuff.

Once you’ve done this, it may be a while before you need to do it again. Keep using active assets when you can. Activate passive assets if you need to keep things fresh. But remember this technique and bust it out from time to time in order to keep you and your table on their toes. The results will be rewarding and memorable.

The Elements of a Job

I’ve been running Blades in the Dark again lately, since I find its cadence of play works pretty well for me online. However, I seem to have made my life a little more complicated, as the players had a crew idea (a cadre of ex-spies who had survived the fall of their patron – some Burn Notice influence on that) that didn’t point to any particular crew type, and they ended up choosing Smugglers, because they liked the idea of moving secrets around.

This is a cool idea, and I wanted to support it, but I was not prepared. But I am hoping I’ve learned my lesson.

I have a curious take on the relationship between Crews and Jobs in Blades, because I feel like there is a genuine divide between core and non-core crew types. To my mind, Assassins, Bravos & Shadows are the core types because their jobs all rest on a similar underlying pattern of action which the default rules of Blades supports incredibly well. On the other hand, Hawkers and Smugglers (and Grifters) have different patterns that I find require a bit more work to fit.1

There is probably a cool way to articulate these as design patterns, but for simplicity, I’m going to illustrate with how I think about job creation when I’m running blades. If I am running a “core” job – that is, assault or stealth2 – then I need four things, and I benefit from a handful more.

Required

Objective – What is the target of action? (That is, the thing being stolen, the person being killed etc)

Location – Where is this happening?

Opposition – Who is resisting this? (Usually because they own the target, but maybe for other reasons)3

Initiation – The point of entry to action. This is recognizable as the missing detail in the planning and engagement rules.

Useful

Complications – These are all the things that are ready to go wrong and shift the job. The most common sort of complication is another interested party – they may not be involved when the job starts, but once the job has started, they might show up or make trouble. Always possible to just make these up on the fly, but past play usually creates a deep reservoir of opportunities to draw from.

Pressure – Why here and now? What’s going on that THIS was the time to run the job, not some better, more perfect time and place? There are all sorts of answers – time pressure, limited windows of opportunity, looming threats and so on, and this is a classic element of the genre (all of them), but this is also a bit of an oddball in Blades. The somewhat wibbly wobbly nature of time paired with the complicated issue of motivation can mean jobs are happening without any pressure to speak of. But if there IS pressure, the game supports it well with clocks.

Value – Why does this macguffin matter? Often this is very straightforward – it’s worth cash – but usually there’s more to it (and even if it’s just worth cash, it’s worth cash to someone.) Is this the means to another end? Is the value of this in the thing it will be traded for? And if it is non-monetary, where is the coin going to come from? You can be a bit hand-wavey about this, but you always want to consider it, because the job payoff is a critical part of the game economy.

Useful Vs Required

Now, to be clear, If I were to ever run a job with only the required elements, I would feel a little naked. The useful elements are the source of a lot of fun and engagement, but I don’t call them required for four reasons.

First, you can run a bare bones job without them, and for a new Blades GM, that might even be the best way to do it.

Second, the useful things can actually be a bit of a crutch – as a GM, we are sometimes pressured to draw in a complication on short notice, and the easiest move is often to bring in something external rather than make the current job more interesting. This is not always a bad move – hell, it’s often a good one – but it can contribute to the actual job feeling like the least important part of play.

Third, there is no consistency in which useful parts you’ll want to bring to bear. You might use some or all of them on any given job, but the precise combination is inconsistent and unpredictable.

Fourth, there may be no reason to add these things because they might already be implicit in the core elements. For example: if the location of the job is the Offices of the Ministry, then the potential complications are baked right in. If the core elements are rich enough, they are often enough.

But even with all those note, this remains a pretty solid model, which can expand or contract according to needs and details. It also is has some curious nuance regarding where each of these data points come from, because they can come from the players, the GM, or just be sort of ambiently known.

To illustrate: The point of initiation is always explicitly authored by the players as part of the planning and engagement phase. The other three points are a bit more flexible.

If the players want to steal something that has already been established as existing in the setting, from a known location, from a faction they have already dealt with, those are all ambiently available information. There may be almost no authorship required to get a job like this started.

I feel like this sort of ambient job is the ideal goal, though I heaven’t really examined why I feel that way. However, I also don’t run across it too often, because usually there are some unknowns that need to get answered, and which unknowns need to get answered seems both highly variable and incredibly important.

The first question is how many of these answers come from the players. For ambient answers, they might all be chosen by the players, or they might require filling in the gaps from the GM. For example, the players might really hate Frakes and want to steal something from him to strike a blow against him. The players are picking the opposition and possibly the location, but they might leave it to the GM to come up with the target, like Frakes’ latest prototype. Alternately, the players might be embracing the privileges of authority and literally just make up some or all of these answers, and let the GM fill in the details.

The more answers that come from the players, the easier things seem to go. I think this is partly because player answers are a proxy for player investment, but also because player answers are a proxy for player clarity.

Because, in contrast, the hardest point for me is when they players have a general intention, but they cannot turn it into action. An example of this is the “Well, we need money – who should we rob?” Situation. Maybe this should never come up in a well run Blades game, but I am only mortal, and have absolutely ended up in that situation, and it’s a fairly serious blank page problem.4

In the context of that list of job elements, this may be a GM prompt to offer elements that serve that purpose. That sounds a little fancy, so put more simply, if the players want to make some money but do not know what, then the GM may put forward a suggestion of something valuable that’s ripe for the picking. Of course, in that situation, the GM usually needs to come up with the other elements on the list (Opposition and Location), and that’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s definitely some amount of work. There are tricks to help with this, but the bottom line is simple – unless the players have an idea for the job, the GM needs to fill in most of the gaps.

Not a shocking realization, I know, but I lay it all out there to illustrate something essential about core jobs. While they may end up requiring work on the GM’s part, they require the least amount of work, because other jobs require more.

But that’s a topic for another day.


  1. Cultists are an even odder case, because they are not defined by the TYPE of action they pursue, but its reason and theme. If you have a crew that smuggles ghosts, the decision to go smuggler vs cult answers very different questions than what the core cycle of play looks like. As a result, Cultists might or might not be core, depending on how the crew works.
  2. And, yes, it’s true the crew types do not line up one for one with the engagement types. I’m pretty sure this is deliberate, in order to break the idea that a given crew can do only one type of job, and I applaud that. But I think some of the friction comes from the dual masters of the Blades’ emphasis on no-planning and the reader-friendly need to structure these all the same way.
  3. For Assassination, this list can collapse even further, as objective and opposition may well be the same thing, but we’ll stick with this for simplicity.
  4. Yes, aggressive player authorship is one solution to this, but I don’t like relying on it piecemeal. If that is at the heart of the game, then awesome, lean into it. But if it’s not, then it tends to be unevenly distributed, without clear practical or social rules around what’s appropriate or not.

SWOT in the Dark

Ok, nerdbusiness time.

There is a technique used in business called SWOT analysis, which is used for things like brainstorming or figuring out next steps. It’s a tool for stepping back and analyzing the reality of your business, group or the like, and hopefully gleaning insight into what to do next.

Conveniently, it is also a really handy template for adventure creation and for fleshing out your game. A PDF with the form and some directions can be downloaded here.

For purposes of illustration, I’m going to use Blades in the Dark, because the specifics of that game align particularly well with this approach, but the underlying idea applies equally well to any game where the players are a coherent group in a consistent context.

So, this technique, like so many expensive consultation driven models, is a glorified way to label four boxes. In this case, the boxes are summarized in the acronym SWOT:

4 boxes: Upper left labeled "Strengths", Upper right labeled "Weaknesses", Lower left labeled "Opportunities" and Lower right labeled "threats"

S – Strengths
W – Weaknesses
O – Opportunities
T – Threats

The practice of filling in the boxes is largely self-explanatory, but there are a few tricks that can make it a little easier and more fruitful.

Strengths

What is it that the crew does well enough that someone else might want them to do it? That is to say, while crews can do a LOT of things, this is where we focus on things that might distinguish them from other groups, both generally and specifically.

Generally, the crew type is probably a pointer towards this, but it’s also somewhat incomplete. A gang of cutters might excel at doing violence, but that is something that many groups can do. What sort of violence does this crew excel at? Do you call them when you want maximum intimidation? Do they specialize in ambushes? Are they a top notch security force?

Individual character strengths also contribute to this, but only if it can be tied clearly to the team. If one of the team members is a master of disguise, that is only a strength if the group integrates that skill into its activities, rather than is just being an adjacent activity.

It’s worth noting that the real value of this list is often found in the combinations rather than the individual elements. That is to say, if strengths include “doing violence” and “knowledge of Six Towers”, neither of those are terribly distinguishing, but in combination they suggest an obvious opportunity the next time violence is needed that depends on the details of Six Towers.

Weaknesses

On the flipside, what is the group bad at? Where are they vulnerable? What kind of jobs do they really not want to end up needing to do.

As with strengths, the crew type probably provides some pointers towards this, but it will also probably be a bit less clear cut because there’s a good chance that the players have made choices to intentionally mitigate group weaknesses. For example, even in a group of slides and lurks, there is probably one cutter who acts as the team’s muscle.

The thing is, that does not cancel the weakness, it merely mitigates it. In our prior example, this crew would still be in trouble in a rumble, even if the cutter is able to put up some resistance, so their relative inability in a fight is probably still a weakness. But if a few more members toughen up, or if the gang recruits some muscle, then they might be able to offset the weakness.

In situations like this, look for the “single point of failure” – situations where the only thing which keeps a problem at bay is one individual or resource. If something happening to that individual would expose the crew to trouble, then that’s a weakness.

Weaknesses also may cover domains of operation or information. What happens if you drop this group into high society? The Docks? A roomful of ghosts?

Sidebar – In The Middle

The ghost thing raises a key point: there are lots of things which would be bad, but are not necessarily weaknesses. Just as crews can do many things which are not necessarily their strengths, there are many things which would be bad but are not necessarily weaknesses. The key thing to identify a weakness is that this group would be worse off in this situation than a comparable group. Similarly, a strength distinguishes the group in some way.

In short, most of the things a crew can do are neither strengths nor weaknesses, but are simply facts of life.

Context absolutely plays a role in this. To use one example, crew tier is not intrinsically a weakness or a strength – it’s just a fact of life. It becomes a weakness or strength in certain situations. If a small crew has big enemies, their Tier is weakness. if a large crew is throwing their weight around on a neighborhood level, their tier is probably a strength. But for a crew operating largely around its own weight class, it’s just the way things are.

Opportunities

Opportunities are things the crew could do but haven’t yet, for one reason or another. The reason might be as dull as “haven’t gotten around to it yet” or as challenging as “if only we could get past that dragon”.

Just as the crew type provides the first pointers for strengths, the crew sheet is the first place to look for opportunities. Right off the bat, claims are something of a laundry list of opportunities for the crew. Any adjacent claim is potentially an opportunity, with the main limiter being how well or poorly it’s been fleshed out.

Faction relationships also

Note that while opportunities can be very discrete (as in the case of claims) they can also be a little bit general (as may be the case with factions) in a “there is an opportunity there but we don’t know what it is yet.” An opportunity for an opportunity is still an opportunity.

One other useful thing to look at is the intersection between opportunities and strengths, and specifically ask whether the group has the opportunity to develop new strengths.

Threats

Where weaknesses helped us understand where the crew might be vulnerable, threats help us understand who might exploit those weaknesses or otherwise do harm to the crew.

It’s important to note that while enemies may be threats, not every threat is an enemy. While an enemy might consciously choose to exploit a weakness (if they know about it), there are other forces that will exert pressure on a weakness in an utterly indifferent manner. That is, if the crew is dependent on a single source for their goods, that’s a weakness. Even if none of their enemies know about this source, then that source is still vulnerable to other forces – his enemies, sure, but also the vagaries of day to day life. If your source is Iruvian and the Ministry starts rounding up Iruvians, that is a threat to the crew even though it’s not directed at the crew at all.

None of which is to say enemies shouldn’t be tracked here. Any faction with a negative relationship with the crew probably deserves a mention in this box. Even if they’re not actively engaging the crew at the moment, they certainly won’t pass up an opportunity if the situation arises.

Using the tool

Obviously, the act of using SWOT analysis is as simple as filling out the form, but there are better and worse ways to go about it. Critically, this benefits most strongly from being a shared exercise between players and GM, because getting EVERYONE’s answers to these question is incredibly informative, especially on the subject of opportunities and threats.

Opportunities in particular are an area where the GM really wants to know how the players see things, because if they players don’t see opportunities, then the game is likely to stall. Having an exercise like this where the group contribute their answer to these questions and express opinions on this is a much healthier way to flesh this out than to have the GM just present a buffet of things that she finds interesting.

Some GMs might feel a little bit of resistance to being equally transparent about threats for fear of spoiling surprises or telegraphing their next move to the players. This can be a fair concern, depending on the specifics of the table, but in that case the concern is easily mitigated by fact that there is no need to get to specific about how the threats might manifest. The table can have an open discussion about the fact that the crew’s hq is vulnerable without the GM needing to say “and this faction is going to exploit that”. If anything, getting buy in to the existence of the threat means players will be more strongly invested if it is brought to bear.

A Few More Tricks

  • As the GM, if you are looking for ideas for your game, take a look at any group or faction connected to the crew (for good or ill) and do a SWOT analysis on them. I promise that after one or two of them
  • Almost anything in the threat box can be a clock. Hell, feel free to put clocks IN the threat box.
Same diagram as above (4 boxes: Upper left labeled "Strengths", Upper right labeled "Weaknesses", Lower left labeled "Opportunities" and Lower right labeled "threats") but with Strengths and weaknesses labeled as internal, and opportunities and threats labeled as external.
  • If it is not obvious what category something should fall into, use the following rule of thumb: Strengths and weaknesses are internal to the crew. They are things which are part of their nature, and (to at least some extent) under their control. Opportunities and threats are external to the crew, and are parts of the environment that the crew operates in, and are things to be responded to, but are not under the crews control.

Dang

Ok, so I knew I had not written here for a while, but firing this up this morning reveals that my last post was in November, and that’s a bit mortifying. Clearly, the clever answer is to dash off a brilliant post right now in an explosion of good intentions, but I know that’s a losing proposition, so I’ll beg a little more patience. I am in the midst of changing a bit of my situation in hopes of re-enabling a bit of writing time, because I deeply and genuinely miss it.

Wish me luck.