Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

When the Campaign is the Game

One thing that Blades in the Dark has really made me think about is fruitfully constraining the setting of a game.  The Blades setting is actually pretty big and I could think of a LOT of games I could fit within it (up to an including Exalted) but as written it ignores all of those options in favor of a very specific focus within a very specific setting.

The focus is not as small as it could be.  The variety of crew types and the size of the city both leave a lot of flexibility, but it’s still a fairly narrow slice, especially when compared to most setting driven RPGs. 

Now, I admit, this is counter to my instincts. I’m a kitchen sink guy.  I want to offer readers as many tools and options as possible, and that can be great for certain things, but it definitely comes at the cost of focus. If I do zoom in, it’s usually in an attempt at brevity, but it’s worth noting that Blades is not a concise book.  I kind of want to deliberately subvert my own instincts and see what designing at a verbose but tight zoom would produce.

My current thinking is that its skeleton would need to be something akin to a certain style of published adventure, specifically a certain style of campaign book which evolves a particular location.  I mean, I guess I could make a game that is explicitly designed to do the Slave Lords arc, but i genuinely don’t see how that would work very well, since it’s just a series of dungeons and dick moves. But more specifically I’m thinking about things like Pool of Radiance or Ruins of Intrigue, where there’s a specific place to play in, with content that unlocks over time.   I could very easily see narrowing a game down and saying “Here are the rules for doing this well.  There is more in the world, and maybe there are other conversations about that, but right now? We’re doing just this thing”. 

So now I’m thinking about other adventures that might work for this.  I mean, there’s probably a whole game to be distilled out of Keep on the Borderlands, but that game might be called “Basic Dungeons and Dragons”.  Dragon Heist is awesome, but I already have Blades and Dusk City Outlaws, so I’m kind of covered there. 

Going to have to go through the bookshelf for ideas, so with that in mind, suggestions are welcome.  Bear in mind, it doesn’t really matter if they’re good adventures (The Pool of Radiance module is…not) but rather that they’re structured in a way that seems like it could contain a whole game. 

What Skills Provide

Spirit of the Century had 3 different chapters on skills – one on what skills did, one on how you, as a player, could be awesome with that skill, and one on how you as a GM could make that skill awesome in play.  To this day, while I regret how much bulk it added to the book, it’s a model I love because it speaks right to the *story* your skills tell about your game.

Skills are weird in RPGs.  We like to think of skills as “things characters can do”, and we play around with that some. For example, I love the five corner model where a skill is:

  • Do the thing
  • Know about the thing
  • Contact people related to the thing
  • Perceive things that relate to the thing
  •  Perform support actions for the skill

So, the “guns” skill would allow you to Shoot, be knowledgeable about firearms, contact arms dealers, spot a sniper and repair your gun. 

Now, this is a cinematic model (the roots of it are from Feng Shui, where skills cover doing, knowing and contacting) that assumes broadly capable characters, and it interacts interestingly with the overall skill list.  That is, if you have a model like this, what do engineering or perception skills provide?  Note, this is not the same thing as “You should not HAVE engineering or perception skills”, but rather a challenge to make sure those skill are interesting.

In contrast, Cortex (like, pre-prime cortex, specifically thinking the BSG version) did a thing I’ve seen in a few games where it had a short-to-medium list of general skills with the idea that more specific skills were specialties on that skill.  For example, you could buy the “guns” skill at d4 or d6, and that covered all gun skills. But if you wanted to get any better, you bought individual skills up from there (so you might buy pistols at d8 or sniper rifles at d10).  I disliked the specific implementation (because cortex granularity is such that the cap ad d6 felt punitive) but I liked it a lot conceptually.  Done right, it allows for everyone to do stuff, but gives specialists opportunities to differentiate and shine.  

The thing is, where it gets weird is in making differentiation and capability proceed in lockstep.  In this model.  There is no real difference between being good at pistols and bring good at rifles at this point of granularity.  Of course, this can be solved with another layer of complexity.  If you have feats or stunts or something like that. then you can use skill level as a gate on buying them.  To buy the quickdraw stunt, you must have pistols D8 – easy peasy!

And yet…

In practice, this always seems like the path to overcomplicated exercises in bookkeeping (form this, most stunt trees are born).  That’s an annoyance, but over time I’ve come to realize that it can also be kind of fun-destructive, depending on expectations.  In almost every stunt tree system I’ve found, there are hidden patterns of things you actually need in order to be cool. Their exact shape varies – they might be thematic groupings or they might be some mechanical threshold at which point things click.  A very common example of this in various editions of D&D is the collection of hoops you had to go through to emulate a particular fighting style (like fencing, or two weapon fighting) because god forbid you just *start* with a rapier (newer editions are better about this, but I still have 3e flashbacks on this topic).

A further complication on this is that because you end up needing to fit the model of modular bits, you frequently invite balance problems. To continue the D&D model, two weapon fighting was a stylistic goal for some, but because the combination of rules around it were frequently broken, it also became a mechanical goal.

So adding a layer of other elements like stunts is a solution, but it’s one with some concerns.  Enough concerns that it raises the question of whether we can solve these problems within our skill design.

On the surface, it seems obvious, but digging into it reveals something a little bit painful about how we use skills in most RPG design.  That is, skills end up providing between one and three of the following: 

  1. Capability (that is, the ability to do the thing)
  2. Differentiation (that is, a reason why this skill is different than some other skill)
  3. Permission (that is, an assertion that the character *can* do the thing)

it is rare for a design to openly acknowledge this, but at the same time you can see it everywhere.  Whatever skill allows brain surgery has an implicit permission element (assuming the game does not permit everyone to try their hand at brain surgery).  Freeform skill system constantly struggle with differentiation. But for all that, we still go about designing skills like they are only about capability, so all it needs is a rating. 

Some games have addressed this by forgoing skills entirely (but that introduces its own challenges) and other games have tried different approaches to varying degrees of success.  i can’t point at one thing that I think is the right answer here, but the question is rattling around in my head for the moment. 

Running Jobs in Blades in the Dark

Bigass diagram of nodes. Sorry, it's really ahed to describe. :(

When I first started running Blades in the Dark, I was enamored by the ease of preparation. Very little player planning, dice driven action snowballs, just lots of great stuff.

But by the time I ran my third session, I was starting to notice something. As a GM, there was starting to be a bit of same-ness to the jobs, specifically the jobs of the same type.

That is, it was very easy to spontaneously improvise the first few stealthy infiltrations, but after a while it started to feel a little bit forced. There was a temptation to skip to the end, and a risk of “ok, now for ANOTHER sneak roll”, and I wanted to steer clear of that. Specifically, when I caught myself narrating a series of rooms, I felt like I had slipped a gear.

I’m sure there are other solutions, but for me it meant a bit more planning. Not a LOT more planning – I have no desire to slow down the game, nor to thrust canned encounters on my crew – but enough to force myself out of comfortable patterns and make me think about what makes this job different than other jobs.

For this, I turn to my old friend, the node map.1 I start from the two points I have: The point of entry and the score. The players provide me the essentials of both of these, so I just need to layer on top of it. For the point of entry, I need to provide a little bit of context: What kind of place is being entered and what’s the outside like? I don’t need a lot of detail, but I need enough that I am ready for any result on the engagement roll. Practically, this means I need to think of something that can go poorly and something that can go well, as well as the middle of the road result2.

I also think about the payoff. If I were to just skip past all the infiltration and get to the point where they’re cracking the safe or getting the idol off the mantle, what does that scene look like. This is usually the easiest creative exercise, and it’s mostly a matter of coming up with a threat or challenge to drive the scene. I apply similar thinking to the engagement roll, only reversed – how does the framing differ if things are going poorly or very well? Will there be extra guards? Will the princess be in another castle? Will the macguffin be left lying in plain site since no one even suspects trouble?

So, now I’ve got two nodes, but I explicitly don’t connect them yet. Also, there’s an instinct to think that I am now looking at the beginning and end of a sequence, but resist that. It might be true, but I also might be looking at the beginning and middle of a sequence, or even just the first two steps.

So, rather than build a map, now is the time to think of a few more nodes. My target number is three, but you do you.

I don’t particularly restrict what nodes are. They might be rooms, they might be NPCs, they might be events or they might be something else. Practically, they just need to be something that could drive a scene, and the details flow from that need.

Coming up with nodes is a creative exercise, which runs the risk of bogging things down, so my process is to run through a quick checklist and see what it shakes loose. My personal checklist is:

  • Is there a visual for a scene that I can see in my head that I want to capture?3
  • Which crewmember is least well suited to this job? Can I engage them? What can I do to balance spotlight?
  • Does anyone have outstanding trouble (NPCs in particular) that I could use bring in?
  • Did the final payoff node suggest to me any logical barriers, gates or thresholds?
  • What would play to the crew’s strength to reinforce their awesome?
  • What would reveal the crew’s weakness and force them to scramble?
  • What is going to happen if the shit hits the fan?

Running through that is usually enough for me to shake loose a trio or more ideas (though if I’m being honest, I often shoot for four ideas, since the “when the shit hits the fan” one is necessary in design but optional in play). I don’t want to throw too much detail at these things, but I like to note the risks and opportunities in each node, and that tends to give me enough to roll with (though it does run the risk of not having much “middle”).

So, I quickly add those three nodes to my notes. I still haven’t drawn any connections between them, but that is the next step. Ideally, I don’t need to connect any of them (more on that in a second), but if it seems like two of them should be connected by story logic (if, for example, the core needs to pass through the guardhouse to get to the treasure room) then this is when I connect them. Beyond those, I keep want to keep the connections loose, so that these elements can be brought to bear in alignment with the events of play4.

At this point I’m ready to go. I have a set of tableaux to be played through, and it’s just a matter of connecting them according to player actions. However, if I have a little more time, I like to add one more layer in the form of transitions.

So, if I actually drew this out as a map, I would be treating each connecting line as a transition, and I’d attach something to it (generally either some sort of choice or a bit of mechanical engagement, like a roll). Story wise, this translates into simple things that don’t merit a whole scene, like a locked door, a branching path, or a guard to be snuck past with no particular fanfare. Since I’m not mapping out connections, I don’t worry too much about choices (since they’ll shake out organically) but I do want to add a little bit of mechanical teeth to the transition between nodes – so how do I do that without explicit connections?5

The trick is that I add attachment points to the nodes, so that if I have an idea what entry (or sometimes exit) from a node should entail, and when it comes time to connect to that node, I connect to the attachment point and use that to inform the transition. It’s not perfect – sometimes circumstances will make the attachment points moot, but they’re lightweight enough (like, a bullet of fiction and a suggestion for outcomes) that it’s no great loss.

Finally, as I’m ready to go, I treat this diagram as a starting point, not a source of truth. As things come up in play or ideas come to me, I may add new nodes, change or update things, and generally keep it coherent and dynamic.6 But it means that with a single sheet of paper7 I have all the details needed to keep a job feeling fresh, with extra space for any clocks that may come up.

  1. While I am not strictly reframing jobs as 5 room dungeons, that’s not too far off from what I do. ↩︎
  2. This is not a super nuanced Way to run engagement rolls, but I am ok with it. ↩︎
  3. Confession: That usually means “Was there a cool bit in Dishonored or some other game that I want to copy?” ↩︎
  4. This is, I should cop, illusionist as hell. If you find that objectionable, then you should do all the connections now, and then run your crew through it. It’ll work fine. ↩︎
  5. Technique tip: Transitions that have rolls do one of two things. Either they force a choice (if you can get past this door, you go through to the nest node. If not, then you need to go to a different node to go around) or they function like mini-engagement rolls to frame the next node. They can do other things too, but the important thing is that the results of the roll are expressed in the subsequent node because it’s more interesting than the transition. If the transition is interesting enough to merit more than that, it should probably be a node.

    Bonus Tip: This also 100% works for D&D. ↩︎
  6. Again, illusionist as hell. Feel free to plan this stuff out if you want. ↩︎
  7. Or, more often, an iPad. The ability to reposition things electronically is kind of awesome. ↩︎

A Random Resource

Ok, since this is my particular sort of nerdery, here is my holiday gift to you: My RPG Supplies Amazon Idea List

Short form: Whenever I find a weird or random Amazon thing that makes me think “I could use that in a game”, I toss it onto this list.  I usually buy one too, but I’m trying to get better about that.  Sometimes it’s just stuff like blank cards or things that I think might make great tokens.  Sometimes It’s the supplies I use to make my custom poker chips.  There’s a nerdy badge holder, and the AMAZING metal coins I used for drama in my 7th sea game that I really want to use, and lots and lots of whiteboard stuff. Single most useful thing? Game card stands. I no longer need to make index card tents to make things readable – any time I would lay something on the table that needs to stay visible, I just put it one of these. 

I mean, there’s some books, dice and cheap minis in there too but most of the stuff is really my version of arts and crafts.  Use it for yourself, or maybe for stocking stuffers for gamers who maybe have enough dice (if there is such a thing).  And if you have recommendations for things I should throw into the list, let me know!.

Holiday Boardgames

Ars Technica has published a boardgame buyers guide which is pretty darn good.  If you’re looking for some boardgames as gifts this season, it’s a really good place to start, as it’s long and pretty comprehensive.


Going to add my own two bits with some of the boardgames (new, newish and not *too* old) that have been staples at my table.  I’ll provide links, and I’ll mention that if they’re Amazon links, I totally get a cut. 🙂

Greedy Dragons – So, yes, this is a little shameless as it’s an Evil Hat game, but there’s a bit more to it.  I like all of our board and cardgames (obviously) but this one particularly hits my sweet spot because it’s small, fast and different enough each time that we can play it multiple times in a row.    I have a small bag of fast, portable games (which also has things like Coup, Love Letter and Jumpdrive in it) which this has a place of pride in.  Yes, commercially I wish this was a big hit, but emotionally I’m sad it’s not because it really is a great game. 

Space Base – We have played a LOT of this one. The spaceship theme is all well and good, but the thing that really makes it for us is that it has a lot in common with Machi Koro (a perennial favorite) but with some tweaks that improve play.  If you’re familiar with MK, the big difference is that you start with a full tableau (2-12) of things that trigger on your turn, but you can only have one card in each “slot”.  When you replace a card, it flips, and now has a (lesser) effect that triggers on other people’s turns.  So you get this very nice upgrade mechanic, but never have the dead turns that can sometimes ruin a game of Machi Koro. My sole complaint is that the card stacking is sometimes cumbersome at the table, and I feel like a slightly different board design would have helped with that. But all in all, that is a very small blight on a really excellent game. 

Shards of Infinity – So, the guys who made Ascension saw the small, fast games like Star Realms and decided to make a game in that model.  It shares enough DNA with Ascension that if you’re at all familiar with it, this is easy to pick up.  However, it also has enough differences (most notably that it’s fast and small, but also in gameplay) that it doesn’t make you wonder why you’re not just playing Ascension.   Also, the expansion for this just dropped, and it adds a little bit of variety to the factions without fattening the game too much, which is welcome. 

 Dice Throne – If I could I would recommend starting with the Season 2 box (gameplay is similar, but the components are upgraded), but they just fulfilled the kickstarter, and its availability is uneven.  Thankfully, the season 1 box is awesome.  It’s a dice battle game, where 6 characters each have a unique board, deck and set of custom dice which are used to drive their attacks. They then…well, fight each other.  It is probably strongest at 1 on 1 play, but can scale up to 6 people.  This is one that I tried at Pax Unplugged last year, promptly bought, and made multiple subsequent sales as people tried it out.  Just fun. 

Santorini – I’ve talked before about how much I like this game, and it lead to a bunch of blog posts, so it would be very silly if I did not at least give it a nod.  Easy to learn, fast to play, vastly, vastly replayable.  There’s a lot to love here. I think this edition has a little less cardboard in it (to reduce cost) but that comes at no penalty to gameplay, which is simple and robust (and the tower bits are the actual fun components)

Sentinels of the Multiverse – Yes, there are a ton of expansions and they’re all great, but the core game is all you need to have a fantastic time in what is my favorite co-op AND favorite supers game.  If you just kind of dig it, all is well, but if you REALLY dig it, then the expansions are waiting for you.   When I first picked this up many years ago, the thing that grabbed me was how much playing The Wraith (one of the hero decks) *felt* superheroic, but also felt differently superheroic than the other decks.  

Addendum for parents – My son is 9, and probably better than average at learning games, but not some kind of alien super genius or anything.  All of these games are ones I have played extensively with him (because that is where a lot of my gameplay happens), and not only does he love them all, he will absolutely kick my ass at many of these.

Link Day

Link day!

  • If you are not familiar with Steven Savage‘s Seventh Sanctum site, you owe it to yourself to fix that. It’s a wonderful collection of random generators useful for all manner of fictional purposes.
  • The Fliptales kickstarter is a few days from closed, and it could go either way.  Do yourself a favor and check it out. They’re going for something unique (Short, pickup play RPGs that are DEEPLY newbie friendly) and I’ll be honest – I have no idea how well they’ll pull it off or if I’ll like the end result.  But I think it’s a tremendous thing to TRY, so I have happily backed. 
  • The After the War kickstarter will wrap up in a few hours, so mostly check this one out to get in before it closes.  Jason makes good stuff.
  • One of my favorite tumblrs, Unfuck Your Habitat (UFYH) for short has apparently hit the big leagues and now has a book.  I picked it up on Audible, and it is a delight.  There’s practical stuff in it, but it also really puts a lot f thought and time into questions of meta-work and the fact that not everyone’s options and resources are the same, and that you need to deal with it.  Wonderful book, but I need to give especial props to the early section on gender roles and cleaning as a fantastic series of truth hand grenades of the kind that it is useful for me to hear.  (Yes, the book is as delightfully profane as the title suggests.  Also, apparently there are a lot of “unfuck” books out now, but so far as I’m concerned, UFYH is where it started).

Full of Cold Meds

I am sick as a dog. Broke down and visited the doc, so now I have some delicious antibiotics and some hope for the future, but very little brain for working.

Cover of the M;tG Artbook for Dominaria

So I’ll sidebar on a thing I like a lot.  I have bought every single one of the Magic: the Gathering art books in the new series that started with Zendikar.  They are delights.  Each one is, effectively, a setting book with no RPG attached.   Wyatt’s a solid writer and they have an effectively bottomless pile of M:tG art assets, so the result is a free for all of fun.  Yes, there’s some “plot” to these things, but mostly it’s just really interesting stuff.

The biggest problem with them is that the formula is pretty much 70% setting, 30% plot, and the plot tends to “use up” a lot of the setting.  This is totally fine for the books, but a little bit rough for using the material yourself.  Magic’s multiverse is definitely one of those settings where a lot of the cool stuff has already been done by people who are not you. This topic probably merits its own post sometime, because this is a consistent bugbear in setting design. 

But unlike, say, the Forgotten Realms, there’s still a ton of room left.  This is all on my mind because while I was sitting in the waiting room, I went down the wiki hole of old Magic setting information, and it’s just plain nuts. And fun.  And begs for play. 

I have a huge weakness for the fun baked into this sort of setting.  The entire Lucien’s Guide series of books (including the 4th, which exists somewhere) is me getting to have fun with it, and it’s a topic I kind of want to get back to. Combined with the fact that my son is nuts for the Magic setting books, this is the backbeat to a lot of design thoughts on my mind lately.

So, no real message except to say: that magic setting stuff? It’s cool. Check it out.  (And, yes, I totally bought the 5e Ravnica stuff, but I need to run Dragon Heist first!)

Favors in the Dark

As I work on the Grifters writeup, I occasionally get sidetracked into a pair of other gang playbooks that mostly exist in my head, one for artists, the other for revolutionaries. Both of those other playbacks really appeal to me as things to play, but they suffer from one key disconnect with Blades – the question of how to get paid.

This is not an insurmountable challenge. Revolutionaries can steal from The Man. Artists can make sales. But for me, that ends up feeling a little bit wrong. For most crews, making money is the underlying focus of activity, but for crews with a different motive (which may also include cults) the centrality of money to the system can end up hurting the feel of things.

Most specifically, it discourages crews from making a ruckus. That is, if you have a crew of rabble rousers and you want to do something dramatic and awesome but not-necessarily profitable, the system will steer you away from that. I don’t fault the design for that – it’s a harsh setting, and it supports an idea that idealists still need to eat. I genuinely get that, but sometimes the rejection of the idea that everything comes down to cash is the point.

So, to that end I have a very simple fix that has room to be a slightly more complicated fix for those who are so inclined, and that solution is favors.

Favors are another form of currency which can be earned as part of a job (or by other means) and are largely interchangeable with coin. When coin could be spent, favors can be spent instead (with caveats). Effectively, favors are a parallel currency, with only a few special rules:

  • Favors may not be used to increase the tier of your crew. That takes real money.
  • When a favor is used, an NPC must be named as the person providing the favor. No further detail is required, and the NPC may be an existing one or a new one, so long as it makes sense. There is no explicit mechanical hook to this, but it’s potentially useful information.
  • Favors can be gained by the crew or by individual members, and can be given by members to the crew, but once they go to the crew, that’s where they stay. (They’re still usable, so no biggee, this is just to prevent weird favor laundering.)
  • The Crew may only hold a maximum number of favors equal to the number of crew members. Any extras must be used immediately (by the end of the current/next downtime) or go to waste.
  • An individual crewmember may hold a number of favors equal to their Consort.
  • A favor may be spend by a player to justify a scene with an NPC. It gives no real authority beyond framing who the scene is with – where it happens and how well it’s received is on the NPC – but it gets the door open.[1]

Optional Rules

Crew Upgrade: Ironclad Reputation – Double the crew’s capacity to hold favors.

Crew Upgrade: Sterling Reputation – Triple the crew’s capacity to hold favors. Requires and replaces Ironclad reputation.

Slide Special Ability: Everybody’s Friend – Once per downtime, you can spend a downtime action working your network, doing favors and earning favors. Make a Consort roll. 1-3 Nothing happens, 4-5 Earn 1 favor, 6 Earn 2 Favors, Crit Earn 3.

Spider Special Ability: Favor Broker – Once per downtime, you may spend a favor to give another crewmember an additional downtime action. Doing so does not expend the favor.

Whisper Special Ability: Everything Bargains – Your favors extend to and from ghosts, demons and almost anything else. When you name an NPC or justify a scene, you are not bound to mere humanity.

Advance Rules: Named Favors

If one REALLY wants to, it is entirely possible to associate favors with NPCs when they’re handed out. This means that rather than just use generic favors, each favor is tied to a named NPC, and get handed out like “Black Andrea:2” or “The Ink Rakes:1” meaning Black Andrea owes me two favors and the Ink Rakes owe me 1.

This is a pretty compelling thought. It constrains the spending of favors somewhat (because the logic of who “owns” the favor influences how it’s used) but it makes the named NPCs that much more important and engageable. It also makes the favors a bot more concrete – there is no guarantee you’ll get a favor again after you spend it, so you need to think a little bit about whether it’s worth it to burn a valuable favor (because one other upshot of this is that some favors definitely ARE more valuable than others). And if an NPC owes you a lot of favors, you might be a little more invested in their well being.

However, this also calls for a level of bookkeeping that is kind of at odds with Blades in general. This is inventory management, and we don’t go for that kind of stuff here. So while I’ll share a few more bullets on how you handle this, I’m going to say that all in all I recommend against it, but if you really like the idea, then go for it.

So, that said, the tweaks you’ll make:

  • Maximum amounts are unchanged. The reduced flexibility of named favors is offset by their increased applicability and potential potency.
  • In addition to other uses, named favors can be spent for actual favors within the wheelhouse of the favor target. Usually in the form of “do this” or “don’t do this”. This is a favor, not authority, so how far someone will go depends a lot on how close to their comfort zone they are. When in doubt, if the character asks for this use of the favor and are declined (GM’s call), that does not expend the favor.

Advance Rule: Taking on Debt

Suppose your character really needs a favor but has none. You have the option of owing someone a favor in order to gain the benefit of a favor. This will usually happen during downtime, but it could come up in play or as a result of a devil’s bargain.

When taking on a debt, the character immediately gains and spends the favor (including naming the NPC) for whatever they needed to accomplish. Then then mark a “-“ wherever they track favors to note the debt.

  • Debt may be accrued by the character or the Crew. Any member of the crew may accrue debt on the Crew’s behalf.
  • Each “-“ occupies a slot of favor capacity, so the character or crew can hold one less favor for each debt they carry.
  • At any point, an NPC may attempt to call in the marker and ask the character or crew to do something. The NPC may be the one named, or it may be someone else. If the characters or crew do it, then the debt is cleared.
  • If they choose NOT to do it, the debt increases (becoming two minuses and so on). This means it occupies more favor capacity, and if this pushes over capacity, favors are lost.
  • The NPC will eventually return and ask another favor, and saying yes will clear the books (and saying no will deepen the debt) but they will probably ask for something more severe each time.
  • If turning down a favor would push a character past their favor capacity, the debt (all of it) rolls over to the crew instead (pushing out any favors they may be holding as appropriate). If turning down a favor would push the crew past their favor capacity, each point of overage is taken from crew rep. If the crew has no rep, it’s added to heat.
  • If you’re using Named Favors, then debt is also named, with all that that entails. One warning – the death of the person you owe might clear your debt, but there are no guarantees.

Anyway. This might get sidebarred into Grifters, but it’s not really a match there, so I figured I’d just share it here.

1 – (Very annoyed that my editor of choice has decided to stop auto-formatting my footnotes). So, technically this means that your crew could spend one favor for an audience with the Immortal Emperor. If this bugs you, then increase the cost of this action by the tier difference between the crew and the target. But if, like me, you hear this and think “Oh, yes, you should *definitely* do that” with an evil smile, then absolutely leave the rule as is.

A Thought on Crunch

Cover of the book “Thinking Fast And Slow”Ok, I have a new theory of crunch.

Kahneman & Tversky did a whole lot of super smart writing about how we think, and one of the takeaways is that we have two main modes of thinking, system 1 and system 2. There’s a great book on this (Thinking Fast And Slow) that sold a ton of copies, and some Nobel prizes floating around, so this is a pretty commonly known model, not some weird fringe thing, so bear with me a moment.

System 1 is Fast, automatic and intuitive. It’s what we use most of the time to just function in the world to walk, talk and generally interact. System 2 is slower and used for reason and analytics. Our thinking is generally dominated by system 1, but we engage system 2 when we’re forced to by circumstances, such as high stakes situations or problems that we lack heuristics for.

The part that is weird about this is that system 1 is really capable. It’s easy to imagine it as just sort of dumb autonomic stuff, but the reality is that it can do a LOT, and it’s super good at creating narratives to make everything around you make sense. System 2 is what we tend to think of as thinking, but it kicks in less often than we think.

Lots of implications to this and stuff that’s way smarter than anything I have to say, but I was thinking about it recently and considering the prospect that a lot of the System 1 stuff sounds similar to what some people enjoy about gaming (flow, creating narrative and so on) and that when they talk about the game just “getting out of the way” that seem consistent with the game being a system 1 operation. On the other hand, there are plenty of games and players where the enjoyment seems to be explicitly in engaging system 2 (for complicated problem solving and so on).

And I think that has given me a new handle to think about what “crunch” means – it’s system 2 play.

This feels very satisfying to me because it embraces the fact that there is no bright line distinguishing crunch from the alternative – rather, it is a function of comfort and familiarity. If you learn a system well enough for it to require less thought (allowing System 1 to do the lifting) then you stop needing system 2 for it, and it stops being crunchy.

It also makes it make a little bit more sense, because some people enjoy system 1 play, but not system 2. Some enjoy system 2 but not system 1. Some enjoy both. That maps to my experience of how people end up enjoying games (and how they end up complaining about crunch or about other things).

Now, there are some odd gaps to this. Some of the other things that can trigger system 2 are emotional, and I’m not sure how the intersection of that and FEELINGS larps works into the model, but I also don’t have a good model for those in general, so I just flag it and move on.

Anyway, I’m not sure if this is a useful perspective, but I definitely intend to try it out for a while and see how it goes.

Who Would Win

As a result of my niece’s interest, I am now playing the first Danganronpa game. I admit, I had not been previously aware of this series (It’s a video game, and there have been several), and while I’m only a little bit in, I’m hooked. It’s sort of a character-driven-visual-story-puzzler-mystery full of anime tropes with a layer of weirdness. Which is to say, it’s very much to my taste.

I may talk more about the game itself later, but a thing that’s fascinating me about it is that part of the premise is that each character is the “ultimate” something (ultimate pop star, ultimate martial artist, ultimate programmer and so on). It’s a key part of the fiction, but it’s an idea that kind of intrigues me from a game perspective.

One of the key truths of comic books is that the fans love the question of which character would win a fight. Old hands and writers roll their eyes and explain that it depends on who is writing. And that’s true, as far as it goes, but that overlooks a lot of assumptions about the characters and writing.

Yes, it is entirely possible for a writer to insert a Squirrel Girl beats Thanos victory and it’s a thing that happens, but that is not an answer to the instinct that drives the question, it’s an active snub. This is fine if you’re paid to write comics, but works less well for GMs.

What people asking that question are looking for (besides validation of their favs) is a satisfying answer, which is to say one which is consistent with the characters and the stories as they understand them (and their opinions on the “right” answer are usually expressions of their understanding.

To make that concrete, if Batman beats Superman because he had a clever plan that leveraged Superman’s weaknesses, then that’s satisfying because it’s true to both characters, and tells us something about them both. If Batman beats Superman because he’s been bitten by a kryptonian werewolf and temporarily is more powerful than Supes, then that’s a valid story but a deeply unsatisfying answer because it isn’t about the characters.

These may seem like disconnected threads, so let me pull them back together – that idea of a satisfying resolution is an essential part of almost any GM decision about character capability, because that is what the player is looking for when we talk about respecting a character’s capability.

Which brings me back to those “Ultimates” from Danganronpa. In simplest game terms, each of them has an arena where they are guaranteed to win any conflict, and a penumbra of related things where they are likely very capable.

Resolving their ultimates is easy to resolve, but the penumbra is where things get interesting. To come back to Batman & Superman, there is a reason the question is “who would win?”, not “Who can lift more?”. The easy question introduces no tension. I look at two characters in this show and I wonder how a conflict (social, physical, mental, whatever) between them would resolve and how I’d model that in a game.

And the thing that it reveals to me is that the winner is the uninteresting part of the question, and that the key is what this shows about the character.

Sorry for the rambling nature of this one – I’m wrestling with some thoughts about what dice are FOR, and this all feeds into it.