Author Archives: Rob Donoghue


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.

The Imprisoned

The Warlock has made a pact with one of the Imprisoned, powerful entities who have been sealed away for all time for one reason or another. Their motives and appearances are greatly varied – some are evil beings banished for their crimes. Others may have simply made the wrong enemies. Naturally, if asked, each of them can explain how they were wrongly imprisoned, but that’s unimportant – what matters is how they can help you.

Expanded Spell List

Spell LevelSpells
1st Comprehend Languages, Expeditious Retreat
2nd Knock, Rope Trick
3rd Sending, Nondetection
4th Freedom of Movement, Locate Creature
5th Legend Lore, Planar Binding

Dangerous Channelling

Your patron gives you access to extra power which is dangerous to wield. When you successfully hit a target with a damaging spell or cantrip, you may roll an extra two six sided dice. You may assign one of them as extra damage to the target, and the other as damage to yourself.

The damage type is the same as the original effect, and if the warlock has any effects which reduce that damage type, it is applied to both dice.

If the spell has multiple targets, this can only be applied on one of them.

At 10th level, you may roll two eight sided dice. At 18th level you may roll two 10 sided dice.

Energizing Ward

Starting at 6th level, you can turn some of the energy of attacks against you to your advantage. When you are struck by an attack doing fire, cold or electrical damage, then you may activate your ward as a reaction. The ward grants you resistance to that damage type for one round (or immunity, if you already have resistance).

If this reduces damage, and you use Dangerous Channelling within one round, you apply both dice as damage to the target, and none to yourself. In this case the extra damage is of the type prevented

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long or short rest.

Puppet Strings

Beginning at 10th level, your Patron can guide your body when you are unable to do so. When you are restrained, stunned or paralyzed, attack rolls against you are not granted advantage by the status. You receive advantage on saves when incapacitated, paralyzed, stunned or uncocious.

Elemental Chains

Starting at 14th level, when you hit a creature with a spell attack, you may bind it with chains of power. It must make a will save against you warlock spell DC or be restrained for one minute or until your concentration is broken. As a bonus action on your turn you can inflict 1d6 force damage to the subject while they’re restrained.

Pact Boon

There’s little mechanical impact on the Pact Boon that comes from the Imprisoned rather than some other patron. However, just as with other pacts, the its appearance and style are impacted by the patron.

Pact of the Chain

The familiar granted by the Pact in the Chain, sometimes called The Whisperer, sometimes serves as a channel for the Imprisoned, giving them a fraction of autonomy to pursue their goals. These familiars may speak and offer helpful – always helpful – advice.

Warlocks who choose the homunculus familiar may choose a different appearance – a colorful, segmented worm. This uses identical stats to the homunculus, but flight speed is replaces with 20′ burrowing speed.

Pact of the Blade

The blade often reflects something of the patron’s nature, but in some cases may more explicitly reflect some nature of its captivity. Blades with a lock or key motif, or even the suggestions of a key’s shape in its blade, are not uncommon.

Pact of the Tome

The book of shadows gifted by the Imprisoned often includes some number of (sometimes changing) maps which the Imprisoned, regretfully, cannot speak to directly.

For the DM

The appearance and nature of the Imprisoned is incredibly varied. Ancient archmages, bound deva’s, dragons of colors or metals which no longer exist – all these things are possible. You and the player may want to talk a little bit about the appearance and demeanor of the imprisoned.

One guideline to this end is that the Imprisoned will unceasingly present themselves as helpful. As an ally. Someone looking out for the character. It’s even possible this is true, but there is reason to be wary. This is a powerful, frustrated being, and the Warlock is the thread it is grasping at in hopes of freedom. Even if they have ulterior motives, they aren’t going to risk alienating the Warlock and losing their chance.

Any Imprisoned will describe their imprisonment as wrong, and those who did it as villains. This is just to be expected, and again may even be true. Or even if untrue, they may sincerely believe it.

This does lead to one kind of important warning about this kind of patron – depending on the circumstance, they may be very manipulative. Specifically, they are incentivized to create a relationship where the warlock is dependent on them, which may lead to a lot of tactics, like gaslighting, which players may not be comfortable with.

If this warning seems odd (after all, playing a warlock of Cthulhu, or Moloch the slaughterer is par for course), please consider – this is not about squeamishness around evil, but rather about things that people encounter in their lives. Great old ones and fiendish monsters are safely in the realm of fiction, but emotional manipulation and harm are things that people have to deal with in their lives. ‘

So, with that in mind, make sure everyone’s clear about how this will play. If the expectation is that the GM will be manipulative in play, then make sure people explicitly buy in. Alternately, if everyone knows out of character that this is manipulation, and the decision to be manipulated is to be a character action, that’s fine too. Just be clear.

Other Notes

I’m not totally happy with Elemental Chains, so I’m going to noodle on that a bit. Obviously, need to test this out a bit, so consider this a work in progress – feedback welcome. I keep being tempted to do an entirely warlock centered 5e book at some point, because Warlocks are just that much fun.

It’s All In The Cards

Apologies for the repost. I originally posted this right after the game, but then we lost it in the server migration. I meant to repost immediately, but then I started actually writing up the rules for this and was going to release both, but those are taking a bit longer than planned, so rather than keep waiting, I’m just reposting this now and will get to the rest of it later.

Needed to run a game for an interesting mix of folks today, and for a variety of reasons I decided to dust off some Amber-derived ideas I’ve had and take them for a spin. Final result was, while not flawless, REALLY interesting, and I certainly had fun. It was also deeply arts & crafts heavy, so it might be of interest to some.

So, we started from a blank slate at the table, and I introduced Proteus. Proteus is, as the name suggests, a shapeshifter, and they are very old and very powerful. They have a tower at the center of several cities in several worlds, and this is their place of power. Proteus also has a number of children, each of which is a power in their own right. They are…

So, at this point I had 7 cards with names on them (Meredith, Finn, Indigo, Keller, Sparrow, Cassia, and Bowie), and I dealt out the top 6 in a circle, setting aside the 7th.

For the next prompt, I pulled out another 7 card deck and said “Let’s flesh them out a bit” and I handed the player to my left a card. Now, this deck was 7 archetypes (The Prince, The Warrior, The Lost, The Wanderer, The Scholar, The Seer, & The Hunter) and I asked players to associate each one with a name, and again I set aside the 7th card.
We repeated this with the next deck of 7 “domains” (more or less arenas of power or similar) – Warden of the Tower, Keeper of the Flame, The Watcher, Nature’s Hand, The Shaper, Walker of Secret Ways, Guardian of the Void, once again letting players assign them. This is where it started getting interesting, since there was some interest in pairings making sense or seeming at odds. When we were done, we had:

  • Finn, The Warrior and Walker of Secret Ways
  • Meredith, The Lost and Keeper of the Flame
  • Sparrow, the Wanderer and Guardian of the Void
  • Indigo, the Hunter and Nature’s Hand
  • Keller, The Scholar and Watcher
  • Cassia, The Seer and Warden of the Tower

(And I had privately set aside Bowie, The Prince and Shaper as a potential future NPC)

So, this was a solid start. I had icons associated with the roles and domains, and at this point we had the skeleton of a setting, so I unpacked a little bit more, and explained that these characters we had just created were the parents of the characters we would play. These characters would be slightly superhuman, heel quickly and be able to travel through dimensions due to the blood of Proteus. They had also been favored by Proteus sufficiently to have lodgings in the tower, which effectively has many floors of well staffed hotel rooms (Proteus has odd ideas about family). As we discussed this, I threw out questions about setting elements, like the cities surrounding the tower, as well as interesting things to be found in the tower. Unsurprisingly, the player contributions did great things to flesh out the setting.

So, at this point we had enough foundation to start diving into actually making characters, so we started with parents and names. I had a list of names for each of the elders, and when players picked a parent, they were urged to pick a name from the list. They had the option not to (representing their name coming from their other parent or some other source) but no one took that option, so we ended up with:

  • Lucas, son of Finn
  • Kaspar, son of Indigo
  • Doris, daughter of Meredith
  • Edda, daughter of Meredith

With another quick round of dice, we used some of the other names to come up with NPC siblings, alive and dead. And now the real show began.

So, for a bit of context, I was using a simple four stat system (Might, Wits, Grace & Resolve), so for each elder I put out 5 cards – one labeled by the secret of their domain and four of them had the name of a stat on them. The stats were not evenly distributed – Finn, the Warrior has three Mights and one Resolve, for example, while Keller, the Scholar, had two Wits, one Grace and one Resolve. I’d set these distributions up in advance based on the roles, and because one role was missing, the distribution was slightly asymmetric. I also added two extra cards, once for Proteus themself and one labeled “Forbidden Secrets”.

I also gave each player a sheet with the list of elders and a few blank spots, and two tracks for the relationship, one which measured support, one which measured respect.

The mechanical part of this was very straightforward – the players went around picking up these cards. If they picked up a stat card, they got a point in that stat. If they picked up a secret, they got some sort of power, trick or item. In each case their relationship with whichever elder’s card it was, and they got a “talent”, which was effectively a skill keyword.

Where the rubber hit the road was that when a card was pulled, that was a prompt for a question (often a series of questions) about that elder, the character and what the story was behind this. When possible (especially with secrets), the player was offered a choice – ideally one which was pointed at other players at the table. Exactly how this played out could impact how the elder relationships would shake out, and it would be used to select the talent for that round.

Secret cards were put back after they were used (Largely because I hadn’t printed multiples), but the stats got used up as we went. This had a very fun effect of forcing players to develop relationships with Elders they normally would not have picked, and since the Elders had gotten steadily fleshed out as we went, these choices felt toothy.
For example, Kaspar’s first draw was to learn Indigo’s secret (Hand of Nature). I asked how old Kaspar was when Indigo took him on his first hunt, and Kaspar’s player’s answer was “Three!”. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity, so as it turns out Kaspar spent ages 3-5 as a hound in Indigo’s pack. Next round, he picked up one of Indigo’s Resolve card, and the story was even less kind. While Kaspar’s player was enjoying it, everyone else at the table pretty much concluded that they did not want to learn anything from Indigo if they could avoid it.

The other two cards were a bit wild cards. The Proteus card called for a die roll which would provide a random boon, though the character also got to spend time doing something useful for Proteus. Only one character went that route and ended up getting turned into a knife and being used to sacrifice a unicorn, so there’s that.

The Forbidden Secrets deck had a set of cards for other powers and groups in the multiverse, and drawing that meant that I drew one of those and offered them something delicious but terrible. One player immediately drew that, got a fun item out of it, and then discovered she was in a horrible position as a result, and was gun shy after that. However, the deck still showed up occasionally when I needed inspiration for an outside force. A few of the factions on that deck ended up getting added to the blank spots in the relationship sheets, usually as enemies.

So, there were 8 rounds of this, and it was pretty marvelous. As often happens in this sort of thing, players ended up with characters that were not quite what they expected them to be at the outset, but in ways the players really ended up enjoying. The downside of this is that we spent long enough on charges that we did not actually get to start play. However, the players are conspiring to play on Discord or similar, so I take it as a good sign.

All in all, definitely a good experiment. A few takeaways:

  • 8 rounds was probably too many. Went a bit slow.
  • About halfway through I switched from players drawing one at a time to everyone drawing at once, then doing resolution. It sped things up and made it easier to thread these things together.
  • I had intended to pre-load the questions to the draws, but ran out of time, so I was improvising them. Worked out ok, but prepared questions would have sped things up.
  • The relationship sliders were really satisfying, but I think I should have leaned on them a little more. Most of the changes were positive, which doesn’t quite align with the tone I imagine – should have had a little more tension in that space.
  • I ended up improvising some of the interactions between the secrets. As designed, they were effectively three tier powers, but I hadn’t really considered how they might synergize.
  • The deck of threats was a last minute addition, but may have been my single favorite deck. Partly because it was the wildest, but also because what drove me to create it was remembering that putting a bunch of demigods in the middle of reality is only interesting if you can give them something to push against.
  • I did not have enough explicit lateral connection and questioning. Added plenty will well-made questions, but if I add another deck, it will be for player to player relations.

So, successful test. The Proteus setting is one I’m absolutely going to use again – it’s my current personal Amber alternative. This particular variation on card-driven chargen – probably the most complicated I’ve tried so far – still holds up.

System Engagement

Decisions, Decisions

Buckle up. This is a weird one.

One thing that makes it hard to talk about “play” as a unified thing is that it’s not a unified thing. There are a host of different activities that fall under the umbrella, and some of them are radically different enough to defy generalization. One of these vectors is the level of engagement with the system.

Ok, roll with me a moment: the biggest difference between a game and a story is uncertainy. Excepting very edge cases, the story might have uncertainty within its fiction, but that’s a sham – it will be the same story each time you read it. On the other hand, a game can be expected to be different each time it’s played. If it’s not, then it’s a script, not a game.

Now, given that, where does this uncertainty come from? The obvious sources seem to be “dice” and “other people”, and that’s true enough, but I might go a step further and say that the difference is found in decisions, which are made either by people (who are highly variable) or by systems (which include an element of randomness to introduce variability). This is a very simple endpoint that glosses over the many, many ways that variability can be introduced, used and managed, but the heart of it is decisions.

However, a game is not just a collection of decisions. There is something that makes those decisions (individually or collectively) enjoyable to a player, otherwise they would not be playing.

There’s no one good answer to this. I could say something like “engagement”, “investment” or “stakes”, but that would just be a tautology – for players to care about decisions they need to care about decisions. Not super helpful in and of itself. From a certain perspective, one might even argue that a primary act of play is the creation of that investment in decision.

But knowing that there is something is valuable, since it then lets you look at specific games and specific people and ask why they care about that decision, and it’s often possible to find that out. There are a host of well known motivations – Challenge, fiero, empathy, drama – stuff like that, and there are ways to drive towards those if you have reason to think they’re the desired values.

Ok, so given all that, we have three interesting data points:

1) Games are made of uncertainty resolved by decisions.

2) Those decisions can be implemented in many ways

3) Those decisions can be valued in many ways.

Now, why is this interesting? Because if we accept the premise that making decisions is the defining activity of the game (and it’s cool if you don’t, but I’ll be riding this train for a bit) then it shows us where the nails that connect system to play are (or should be). That is: your play is full of decisions, how does you game’s design interact with that?

If that seems abstract, then consider the slightly more concrete question of “What decisions are being made in play without the game system, and is that gap a problem?” Consider the classic example of “we played all night and never touched the dice once!” This is one of those odd contradictions of game design because the play experience was great, but clearly there is some sort of disconnect because (implicitly) this was an experience the rules as written couldn’t provide. There’s an instinct to consider this as a flag for a bad design, but that seems excessive. It might indicate a mismatch – they might be trying to drive a hammer with with a screwdriver – but that is a different sort of problem.

But where this gets useful is that during that “no dice” session, decisions were still being made. They were just being made by a human rather than a system. This has risks, but in this case it turned out pretty well, and the question becomes whether there’s anything we can learn to replicate the success (and, ideally, fold those learnings into the system in order to automate it).

This is fine as far as it goes, but what’s important to note is that the reality is that while the dice may not have been engaged, this does not mean that the system was not. This is because while the system may offer the means of making decisions, it is also the container for many of the things which influence decisions.

Again, that’s pretty abstract, so let me make it concrete. If you are playing a very skilled thief and you come to a locked door, this is a moment of uncertainty – will you be able to get past the door? (The game may ask a different question, but let’s stick with this for now). The default system almost certainly has some means whereby I could roll some dice, compare it to something, and get a yes or no answers. That is one way to make the decision. Alternately, the GM may simply think “You are a very skilled thief, of course you can pick it, you succeed and move onto the more interesting thing.” This is also a way to make a decision.

But wait, you might think: Have we just stripped the situation of uncertainty? If nothing else, we have stripped it of uncertainty for the GM.

This is, I think, a really interesting philosophical question with curious implications. If you have a sense that uncertainty needs to be fair or evenly distributed in some way then having unevenly distributed uncertainty is a no go. If you shrug and note that it’s still uncertain for the players, then it’s no big deal. But this is such an essential difference that it has really profound impact in design and play.

However, it’s also a bit of a sidebar. The interesting thing in the thief example is that the system contains the information that your character is an accomplished thief in some way. It might be a high skill rank or many levels or whatever, but something in the game reflects and communicates that idea. That informed the GMs decision – should the fighter have come to the same decision, they would not have gotten a pass – so the system is still engaged, even if it’s not engaged in the ‘right’ way.

The result of this long, twisty route for me is to really look at this idea of there being different ways to engage the system in play and consider it as a feature rather than a bug. The premise of this would be that just as there are different kinds of investment and different kinds of decisions, it may be desirable that there be different means of engagement for the system.

This is hardly an unprecedented idea. Turn it a little bit in one direction and it’s the same argument for games having different subsystems for different types of action. But most existing examples proceed on a single axis: granularity. That is, they may have a simple procedure for doing one thing, but a more complicated one for doing something more specific. For example, a game might have a general resolution mechanic for most action, but a more detailed system for combat.

But the possibility which intrigues me is that this could be done on drastically different axes. Go back to that list of things that invest people in decisions and you could have different tools for engagement that support different modes with the expectation that they could change up on the fly.

(As an aside, I think the ability to implicitly do this is one of the appealing elements of very light, very interpretive games. 3d6 in Risus is a very concrete things, but the number of ways to use and interpret it is vast. This is harder as the system picks up more parts).

This is all crazily abstract, so let me make it a bit more concrete with a Fate Hack.

When engaging with Fate in a normal way, these are the things that aspects do at my table:

  • At a cost, it might grant a bonus to a roll
  • At a cost, it might be able to turn an opportunity into a resource or other outcome
  • At a cost, it might remove an impediment
  • At no cost, it might create or impede an opportunity
  • For a payment, it might impose a penalty
  • For a payment, it might remove an opportunity
  • For a payment, it might become an impediment

In this case, “In a normal way” generally means “Declare an action, move around some fate points, roll some dice”, which is to say, directly engaging the system.

However, let’s say I want to capture that “we never touched the dice” feeling in a Fate game. I would simply narrate events, answer questions, and play NPCs until we come to a point of uncertainty. In many situations, I will look at it, look at the skills and aspects in play, and resolve the uncertainty with that information. I would probably also be mindful of how “pushing” an aspect might change the outcome, and use those possibilities as options for fate point spends to nudge things along. I’d need to come up with a good rule of thumb to handle situations where no “right” answer suggests itself, but that can be as simple as “Say yes or ask a question”.

I am, at this point, playing a RADICALLY different game than an “engaged” game of Fate. And yet, in practice, I can move pretty seamlessly between these two modes because they both draw on similar source material (the character sheet), they differ only in how the decisions are being made.

Now, I think this is a good thing. Tastes vary, but this is my jam. However, the question it now leaves me asking myself is how to write the game in such a way that this is the intent, not just a happy outcome. I don’t have an answer for that yet, but I feel like this rambling has brought me closer.

The Urban Body

This metaphor stops being useful as you start getting into the details, but when you first start thinking about a fictional city, it is worth thinking about it as a person to remind you to consider the things that make it go.

Like a person, a city has:

  • A brain
  • A Heart
  • A Stomach
  • Muscles
  • An Immune System
  • A Nervous System
  • Bones
  • Blood
  • Digestive System
  • Naughty Bits
  • Gut Flora

The list isn’t comprehensive, but it doesn’t ned to be. It’s just a prompt to remind the creator to think about each of these things, and uses something familiar to provide touchpoints on what to consider. Let’s run through them quickly.

Brains – Who’s in charge? Who runs the city? If something intentionally changes in the city, who makes that decision? This is often the first place the metaphor breaks down, because there are often multiple answers. That’s fine! The goal is not to create a city that adheres to the model, the goal is to just use the model to ask the questions!

A Heart – What keeps this city alive? Does it have a purpose? Is it healthy? In decline? This may be a littler ephemeral, but it’s important because it’s really the core idea of the city.

A Stomach – How does the city eat and drink? It probably can’t produce its own food, and water has to come from somewhere, so where is it coming from? How does it get in? What’s interesting about it? What’s at risk?

Muscles – How does work get done in the city? What sort of industry is there? How do things happen?

An Immune System – What keeps the city from changing? What protects it? Police? Soldiers? Strong neighborhood bonds?

A Nervous System – How does the city communicate? Within itself? With the world outside? How do people find out what’s going on?

Bones – What was this place before it was a city? How has the landscape shaped the city, and how can you still see it today? Why THIS location, not somewhere else?

Blood – How do things circulate? How does transportation work? How are the roads? The waterways? How do people and goods get around?

Digestive System – If the stomach is input, this is…output. Where does the waste go? How much lingers? Are their sewers? What keeps the streets clean?

Naughty Bits – With apologies, what is the role of sex in the cities? What are the mores? What are the roles? How is the oldest profession treated?

Gut Flora – Ok, this is a little esoteric, but useful – who lives in the city and is not necessarily part of it, but at the same time is tightly tied to it? What are the critical symbiotic relationships of the city? Gangs, ethnic neighborhoods, secret conspiracies, religious congregations and more all exist within cities, but it’s worth thinking about which ones are critical to the city.


Since I’m talking about clocks anyway, I realized it’s worth mentioning one more bit of notation I was considering for my own game – how to block a clock (and, critically, how to indicate that a clock is blocked). The trick is simple enough: put an asterisk in a given wedge to note the requirement to fill that wedge. So, for example the clock to kill a werewolf might be:

Simple as that. Since I like to complicate things, I might end up coming up with specific icons to fill in for the asterisk if there are consistent types of barriers. This model occurred to me when I was thinking about how I would do some Ars Magica style spell research where I would want the research process to demand some sort of action (because the asterisk is, ultimately, a course of action) and it struck me it’s just as applicable to a wide variety of situations.

Anyway, very small hack, but I share is in case it’s of any use.

Capitalizing on Alignment

Quick fix to give alignment a little more nuance – use upper and lower case letters to denote personal significance. Broadly speaking, lower case represents an inclination while upper case denotes an ethos.

If an alignment is all lower case then it’s descriptive, but doesn’t particularly introduce conflict into the person’s life. Lots of people who might flinch away from describing their character as LAWFUL GOOD might be of with “lg” rather than “LG”, since LG is the classic paladin, but lg is more “I like that laws protect us and I like to treat people well.”

When an alignment is mixed case, that reveals that one serves the other. An lG character wants the greatest good, and feels that law is a tool to that end, whereas an Lg character might feel that maintaining order is the most important thing, and good things will come of it.

A simple breakout might look like:

LG – Law and good are both VERY important to me!

Lg – I am a champion of law, because I think it is good

lG – Law is the means by which I pursue my good ends

lg – I am basically nice and follow the rules but it’s no big deal

One issue that I think this addresses nicely is neutrality, which can be reasonably interpreted as “indifferent” and “actively seeking balance”. In this case, those are “n” and “N” respectively (and even allow a neat trick with true neutral including things like “Nn” – for ‘I’m indifferent to good and evil but highly invested in balancing chaos and order’).

It also leaves space for little-e-evil, so there’s a bit of a moral difference between street thugs and cultists of Orcus, which I think may be a bit more playable in a number of ways, since I think one of the common problems with “dark” campaigns is that it’s not always clear if the players want to be big e or little e evil. (And, as Glen Cook and others have shown us so well, there is a lot of really great conflict to be had between little e evil and big e Evil).

Anyway, this trick doesn’t require any mechanical changes. If a GM wants to I suppose you could have capitalized alignments carry a bit of metaphysical weight (so they interact with detect and protection effects, and might be required for certain classes or items) but that’s a lightweight tweak.1

Also, it functionally means there are now 36 possible alignment combinations, so there’s a lot more room for nuance without changing the underlying structure.

Edit: Fixed the rogue “N” in the chart. 

  1. If you are feeling really invested, add one more level where it’s capitalized and underlined or bold – Lg to reflect an axiomatic connection to the principle, as might be appropriate for extraplanar beings. This becomes the indicator for whether magic interacts with the target as Lawful or Evil or whatever. It can be up to the individual table whether players can adopt these “true” alignments (probably based on class, possibly level). ↩︎

Welcome to Sunny San Lazarus

Map of the (fictional) city of San LazarusI am unreasonably excited about the Sentinel Comics RPG. I love the card game. I love Greater Than Games. I love the specific designers behind this game. This is pretty much a conflux of so many things that I love so much that it was inevitable that I threw a very silly amount of money at the Kickstarter.

I look forward to talking about it more as time goes on, and this is the game that might drag me back into doing a mega-review. But for the moment, I want to talk about my plan.

To date, I have read as little of the RPG material as possible. Fred is running the Starter Kit adventures, so I’ve read the player stuff in that, but that’s it. I could probably know more if I wanted, but I’m genuinely excited to encounter the book in as fresh a state as possible.

But for all that, I am not that good at waiting. I have been guzzling down the Sentinels settings podcast, The Letters Page, and gorging myself on both lore and Christopher and Adam’s delightful sensibilities. I would have listened to them all by now, but my son also loves the podcast, so I have to slow down so we can listen to it together.

And, of course, I have been thinking about the game I’m going to run. Because I am going to run.

In the absence of a gamebook, but with a decent body of setting lore, I started thinking about what I wanted. First and foremost, I needed a city. The Sentinels setting has two prominent American cities (Megalopolis and Rook City) and they’re absolutely great, but if I’m doing my own stuff then I was probably going to make my own city. Which got me thinking about the things I wanted in a city.

First, I was inclined towards the west coast. No real thematic reason for this, but the other two cities are easterly, and it seemed like some physical distance would open up opportunities. That probably meant California or Washington.

With that in mind, I thought about influences. I’ve always liked how the cities in DC comics resonate with real-life cities – Metropolis and Gotham as the two faces of New York, Opal City echoing Baltimore, Star City echoing Chicago and so on. To my mind, the iconic west coast cities would be L.A., San Francisco, and Seattle, with honorable mention to Portland and San Diego. This didn’t suggest anything specific, but it gave me some notes to hit.1

Lastly, I needed a reason for it to be interesting. Rook City and Megalopolis have very rich histories which are full of hooks that story can attach itself to. They are the kind of places where almost anything can show up, and you can probably find a decent reason for it. I needed that kind of flexibility, which meant I needed to start spinning deep tales.

Or I could cheat.

So, there is one other named city of note in the Sentinels setting: San Alonso. Home of Champion Movie Studies, it is an L.A. sort of place. However, in the OblivAeon event (which is the precursor event to the RPG) the city was very literally destroyed. Huge energy blast from the sky. Millions dead. Very, very bad.

I was struck by the image of a perfectly circular bay where the city had once stood, and that got my brain whirling. Obviously, even if a new city were to be built, that effort would take more time than was available before the RPG began. I could maybe have some early construction and go for a reclamation sort of theme?

Or I could really lean into the supers stuff. Super science. Nanotech. Extradimensional visitors. All that jazz. What if all that had really been thrown at building a new city on the shores of that bay? That could work. Definitely got some hooks and potential – full of things that villains may want and so on. Cool, cool.

But…not quite grabbing me.

So I dug further into the why, and found something great. See, one other upshot of the OblivAeon event is that a whole lot of people from other dimensions got stranded on our world2 and were now sort of stuck. In addition to the sheer number of deaths and the scope of destruction of the event, this introduced a huge logistical problem because these folks had no homes, no jobs, no citizenship and were often more than a little bit weird. What does one do with those folks?

In many games, I’d got the dystopian route, but this is a somewhat more positive world, and the U.S. Military has just gotten past the discovery that it had been secretly doing pretty bad things with superpowered individuals, so in the case they do the thing that America is supposed to do, and provide a place for these people, throwing the government’s weight and resources behind this new city.

That worked for me. It gave me a deep bench of weirdness to draw from and gave a reason for the city to be robust, dynamic and cosmopolitan despite the paint being fresh. Add in the crazy-deep bay (quite possibly full of ghosts) and possible lingering OblivAeon effects and I am going to have no shortage of hooks. I had the potential of some science vs dark magic tension (new growth vs. the city kind fo being a graveyard), Business vs. government, and even media vs. technology.

I lacked a name that I really liked until Will Hindmarch suggested “San Lazarus” and that was utterly perfect.

So with that in mind, I sat down and started drawing the map.

That may seem backward, but for me, it’s very inspirational. I don’t draw maps to document what I know, I draw them to see where the blanks and connections are, and then do things with those. The Nemosphere (now one of my favorite parts of the city) was not part of my original idea but was simply a result of my pondering how the rail system was going to handle the bay.

Anyway – It’s totally possible that some of what I’m writing up will contradict material in the game when it comes out. I’ll deal with that when it happens. Normally, I would not care at all, but the SCRPG team do a good enough job with setting that I’m open to repurposing the work if their version grabs me. But until then, I’ll keep writing it up, and I’ll probably share more here as I go.

    1. Honestly, I don’t think there was any way for there not to be at least a little Silicon Valley in whatever I made.
    2. Short form: OblivAeon was collapsing all realities, and so was being fought by heroes across the multiverse. When he was defeated, the multiverse snapped back to a healthy state, and if you were in the wrong world when it happened, that’s where you are now. This mostly affected heroes (it’s an excuse for MANY origins), and I’m taking liberties in suggesting that many civilians were affected too, but that seems in spirit.

Stress is Best

Ok, let’s talk about Stress in Blades in the Dark.

This is an amazing mechanic – metamechanic even – that is easy to overlook. For all that it seems faily simple, it’s one of those things that really jumps out at you when you start looking at making hacks for Blades, and you find yourself wondering “Can I use stress to model THING?” and discover that the answer is “Yes. Yes you can.”

For the unfamiliar, BitD characters have a certain amount of stress, represented by a (mostly) fixed length track reminiscent of a Fate stress track, or the wound tracks from any number of games.1 Players can mark off stress for some effects like flashbacks or die bonuses (2 to push oneself for effect, 1 to assist an ally – very simple and nicely teamwork encouraging) but the real meat of the system comes up when it’s used for resistance rolls and how it’s recovered.

This is not going to come as a surprise to anyone who has played much Blades in the Dark, but it is not necessarily obvious when you read the rules or even if you just play it ones. Resistance rolls are one of the most powerful levers in the system – maybe the most powerful. They work as follows:

  1. Something bad happens to your character as a consequence of your actions.
  2. You do not want that thing to happen as presented, so you choose to resist.
  3. The thing does not happen. It may be cancelled, changed or mitigated.2
  4. Dice are rolled and a cost of 0-5 stress is extracted. There are dire consequences if you don’t have enough stress.

Which is to say, guaranteed success, but unknown cost, though the cost is roughly predictable. It starts at 6, then you subtract the highest of 1-4+ dice from that. The player doesn’t know for sure what they’ll be rolling until the GM calls for it, but in a lot of circumstances you can guess, since the categories are largely Physical, Deception or Social, with weirdness only when it’s not in that space.

This is a wonderful mechanic on a few levels, so lets pull it apart.

First, this is possibly the purest expression of “Hit Points as Pacing Mechanism” that you could practically implement. The stress track defers consequences, so it extends the amount of time a character can stay on their feet and in play. But since it does not couch it as “damage” you don’t get the (now familiar) complaints that pop up if it were to actually frame social conflicts as “combat”.3

Second, it has a degree of uncertainty, but also has the possibility of a “good” outcome. There is always the possibility of rolling a 6 on your resistance roll and paying no cost at all. If that was not there, then there would be a ratcheting inevitability that would suck away that potential thrill of victory.

Third, the level of risk is very knowable. When you look at your stress track and you know how many boxes you have left, you can make an educated guess at your odds. If you have 4 boxes left and are going to roll 3 dice? You’re probably going to be fine. But if you’re not? That feels fair. You are not getting blindsided by something being secretly harder than you expected.

Fourth, it introduces a mechanical point for the player to say “no”. This is kind of tangential enough to maybe merit it’s own post someday, but that invitation is a WONDERFUL addition to GM/Player interaction.

Fifth, it let’s the GM push HARD, because the players have the ability to pull it back. How well this works in practice has a lot to do with how much the GM respects resistance rolls, but it’s potentially very powerful4.

Sixth and most relevant to this discussion, the use of stress for this purpose is a wonderful bit of sleight of hand because it frames stress in an agnostic manner. The terminology and presentation5 of stress is like it’s a real-in-the-gameworld thing even though it’s absolutely a meta-currency. The game would function just as well if the currency was “Darkness Points” or “Drama” or whatever, but not calling it that allows people to handle it like they do things like hit points – by just accepting it and moving on. Never underestimate the power of not picking a fight you don’t need to.

Seventh, it’s like saving throws that don’t suck.

So, resistance rolls alone would be a very robust use of currency, but there’s actually a whole engine here, which also includes how you regain the currency. Rather than resetting based on time or triggers, it is restored with explicit action6 (pursuing your vice) and even that has a little bit of risk (it is possible to overindulge). That risk is not huge, but it loads the choice to recover with some necessary thought when you have 5 stress to clear, and you’re worried about rolling a 6. (In case it’s not obvious, this is a wonderful solution to the 5 minute dungeon problem, which is a shame because Blades doesn’t have that problem.)

So, this is all great for Blades, but why am i so excited about this in a general sense?

Because this engine is covered in knobs.

Consider that this cycle of stress use and recovery includes the following things:

  • Spending stress to do ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS.
  • Spending stress to Resist an ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS with SOME RISKS
  • Recovering stress by doing an ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS with SOME RISKS

Almost every game with some sort of currency does the first bullet, but tend to be a bit light on the others. And that’s fine, because the real trick is that every place where I wrote ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS or SOME RISKS?

Those are the things your game is about.

Like, not in some deep metaphorical way, but in the very straightforward “these are the actions you will pursue and the consequences you will face”. And those things, in turn, determine what the currency is.

That may seem circular, but let me illustrate. Stress works well for Blades because it’s a kind of unpleasant setting. Things are under high stress, and the consequences of things going bad are bad for mind and body, but are largely internal to the characters. After all, the main consequence of stressing out is taking on some amount of trauma, a change to the internal landscape.

Consider the very small change where we called stress “luck” and changed almost nothing else. The game would still play about the same way – you could press your luck, and your luck might run out. In that game, I suspect the consequences of your luck running out would be external – loss of resources, harm to the setting and so on. What appears to just be a change in terminology and tone becomes as change in rules because there is an explicit place to do it.

This is why it is so easy to think of other things stress might be (Reputation! Resources! Divine Favor! Popularity! Mana!) and then very naturally fill in what that means by changing the variables (the “ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS”) rather than the formula.

Combine that with the track-style presentation (which makes the whole thing friendlier to a category of players AND makes the use of currency feel more explicit and constrained) and you have a really powerful tool that is not hard to point in new directions. And, hell, while the specific details are tied to the BITD dice system? The model could be extracted further into any system you like. Hell, I could do it with D&D. I couldn’t sell it, but I could totally do it.

  1. Though really, it’s a clock. I mean, clocks and tracks? Same thing. Just different psychology of presentation. ↩︎
  2. This is probably the single most powerful knob in the game (and the game knows this) and it has very little guidance around it. Exactly how much resistance helps in a given situation is a decision that the GM has very broad leeway over, and whether resistance means “This, but not as bad” or “No, that’s not an interesting outcome” is entirely the GM’s decision. ↩︎
  3. Some folks are fine with that abstraction, but the people who hate it HATE IT A LOT. ↩︎
  4. Ironically, if the GM pushes hard before and after the resistance roll (that is, only minimally reduces consequences) then that discourages hard pushes. Player will be more careful and risk averse. If, on the other hand, the GM pushes hard, but then takes a resistance roll as a player statement to step back from the line, then you can get some pretty high octane, high trust play going. And just for completeness, if the GM doesn’t push too hard, but is also conservative with resistance rolls, there’s no harm save wasted opportunity. Weak push/strong resistances is a weird combination but could work well for a game where moment to moment success is a given, but the real attention is on the big issues that underly things (that is, the consequences of blowing out stress). ↩︎
  5. Also, by making it a track rather than some other counter (like tokens) it feels like “loss” rather than “spend”. This may seem like a trivial difference, but the psychology is pretty big. For an easy illustration, try playing Blades with tokens for stress sometime. The entire feel changes, and specifically tilts towards the non-resistance uses because those are more “spendy”. ↩︎
  6. Hat tip to The Shadow of Yesterday which laid the groundwork for this (and many other amazing mechanics). ↩︎