Category Archives: Design

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). ↩︎

Worldbuilding Rewards Bias

Bowl of Jellied Eels

I wrote some stuff about food in Blades in the Dark the other day, and I’ll probably turn it into a blogpost, but there’s one point that came up in the discussion that I feel needs some highlighting.

One thing I did in my discussion was say “Ok, we have no sunlight, but we need some agriculture that thrives in the dark” and I went with root vegetables (potatoes, onions, garlic, turmeric, ginger, stuff like that) as being growable-but-weird. The reasoning for this was simple: things that grow underground seem like the things we’d expect to grow well in the dark.

Now, the thing is, this was reasonably called out as somewhat nonsensical. In reality, those plants need sunlight as much as anything else, so if I’m going to introduce dark tubers, why not just introduce dark everything?

I 100% understand where this question comes from, and I do not fault the person asking it, but I want to highlight it as something important. Specifically, I want to highlight it as a question which will destroy your world building1.

Bold claim, I know, but bear with me.

When you are building a world, there is a necessity for some consistency, but complete consistency is impossible to achieve for two reasons.

First, it is an infinitely complicated and boring process when taken to that level.

Second, actual life is staggeringly inconsistent, and things which are consistent feel super fake.

Now, everyone has their own approach to world building, and I’m just talking about what works for me here, but let me unpack how I walk this line: with bias. See, it is easy to imagine world building as a sort of pure intellectual exercise where you start from some fixed set of counterfactual elements, and then “build logically” from there. Now, this can be a SUPER fun exercise, and I totally encourage doing it for fun, but it has a dangerous edge to it when it creates a sense that there is a right answer to what the counterfactual world would look like. This illusion of certainty can result in us pretending that this is not an act of creation, but rather simply analysis, which becomes a real problem if we want to work and play with other human beings.

So, when I world build, I try to be cognizant of the things I want to see. Things like genre touchpoint or random cool stuff, as well as any elements of theme that I consider appropriate. These explicitly are not born from the setting being “logical”, but instead force me to bend and think to try to find ways to make them fit. This has a trio of benefits.

First, it’s fun. It’s my storytelling equivalent of the Apollo-13 tabletop dump.

Second, it keeps the world from entirely making sense. Adding these irritants to the mix is what adds eddies of color and shape to what otherwise may be uniform and uninteresting material.

Third, since these things are fun and thematic elements of the game, they improve play, because they help the world stay in line with expectations.

In the case of blades, I had a few needs (theme of darkness and a desire for fish and chips, plus the dark industrial tone of Duskvol) and potatoes lined up very well with all of those things, so I rolled with that. Now, I can ABSOLUTELY justify it2, but I can always justify whatever I come up with. The point is that the justification feeds the end rather than the reverse.

Not everyone’s going to be comfortable with that, but I encourage trying it. Worldbuilding that only makes sense tends to be very flat – throw in a little of your bias and taste, and I think you’ll find the results much more satisfying and fun (and, honestly, you’re already doing it, but acknowledging it makes you the owner of the process rather than its servant).

  1. Tangential nod to the Fate Toolkit’s magic section here which I’ll reiterate: Once you introduce magic, the most important thing you need to define is what magic CAN’T do. These constraints will be arbitrary, but their alternative is really, really boring, ↩︎
  2. Because someone will ask: A food chain is just an energy transference system. For us, that energy originates from the sun and trickles forward, but once you accept a magical world, you can posit that the energy comes from somewhere else, like the soil. As such, plants which get the bulk of their nutrition from the soil makes sense if the soil has energy. And let’s assume it does. Maybe it just has it. Maybe it depletes, but is refreshed by blood (because spiritual energy has nowhere to go). I kind of like the idea that it depletes and can be replenished because that then makes good soil something valuable and suitably creepy. ↩︎

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. 

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.

Lessons From The Young

Musical score with the text "Don't mess with the Bard"The roles seem well received so, at some point, I may need to write those up a little more. I suspect there’s also a player version to be had, but that seems like a daunting task, so we’ll see how that shakes up.

But I’m still chewing on the underlying Santorini issue, and have ended up looping back to it from a strange vector. My son is 9 years old, and we had the opportunity to play some RPGs this weekend. This is not new, but we got to do more than we usually do, and it was somewhat illuminating to me because on many levels he is looking at the same issues as our Santorini player – he is enthusiastic and engaged, but disinterested in work getting in the way of play.

The first two sessions we played were back to back 5e D&D and Fate Accelerated, with the additional twist that it was the same character between the two. Neither game was a perfect match, but the things that worked and didn’t were very interesting to me.

For starters, his primary motivation in making a character was to get a pseudo-dragon familiar, something he had discovered existed in an enthusiastic read-through of the Monster Manual. I 100% cannot fault this and wanted to support it, so we did charge and talked about what it would mean for various classes and races, and he ended up making a human bard (with a 20 Charisma and the Actor feat, no less). He loved some of the explicit bits – the skills he was exceptionally good at, the specific spells, stuff like that. He really enjoyed looking through the backgrounds and considering the RP hooks, but he also ended up reading ALL of them in order to find ones he liked. He groaned at some of the bookkeeping and largely wanted me to write stuff down. All in all, there were a LOT of choices to be made, and he cared a lot about maybe half of them.

Actual play was decent. I stuck primarily to things involving skill rolls because – as the one fight reminded me – a lone level 1 character can be killed by a stiff breeze. That actually made it a little hard to GM, because I had to be VERY CAREFUL about potential threats, but he had fun.

The next session started with just porting the character to FAE and starting up. He was not too excited by the character. It had taken a long-but-specific list of cool things he could do and replaced it with a shorter-but-broader list that pushed more of the creative work onto him. Now, the Little Dude has no shortage of creativity, but he definitely felt this was less exciting than having explicit cool abilities. I could theorize a lot about this – the balance of prompts vs. creation, the dangers of the blank page, constraints breeding creativity and so on – but in practice lists of cool things are pretty fun and they are more what he wanted. I “cheated” and gave him 3 stunts to start out to try to mitigate this, but the reality is that it would really need to be longer. Also, aspects didn’t really grab him – I think they felt more like constraints than opportunities to his eyes, but it may also have been that because I ported quickly, his aspect list was a little uninspiring.

The actual play part went great. He did lots of cool stuff, I had less need of kid gloves, and he absolutely got to be a hero working towards his big plot (defeating the evil priest that had killed his noble parents and seized their lands, a hook that had come out of the 5e prompts). But in the end, he had liked D&D better.

All of which suggests a sweet spot somewhere between these two. A little bit less bookkeeping than D&D, but a bit more explicit than FAE. Curiously, those are probably also very good Santorini style goals. The “Less Bookkeeping” part is pretty obvious, but the “more explicit” bit might need a little unpacking because it is easy to think of FAE as a “light” game, one that’s easy to pick up and play. That’s largely true in terms of pure page count, but it absolutely pushes the burden of creative labor onto the reader and player.

That is not a bad thing in general, but it’s a problem for an introduction. Worse, it’s also a blind spot for our community as we think about these things. When things don’t work because of the level of creative labor they demand, we have a habit of (overtly or passive-aggressively) blaming the reader of the game for not being creative enough. This is…well, it’s lazy bullshit. The idea that “creative players” (carefully distinguished from “normal players”, of course) will solve these problems at the table is a tool of shame that spares the designer from needing to actually think about the human beings using their game. This problem is independent of whether you feel authority likes with the rules or the GM – this is about the utility of the rules, and authority is just a smokescreen to hide that. While I may personally lean towards the GM as authority in my play, holy crap do I appreciate how much clarity a system-centric approach brings to writing because there is less of an easy cop out (though it can still find its way in).


The game he ran is nominally a Fate game, but in practice, the only overlap is the use of the dice. The rest of it is all born out of his head in an amalgam of terms and visuals he’s encountered in other places (our character sheets look a LOT like something from the World of Warcraft UI). He has a lot of classic GM foibles – his insertion NPC can be a bit scene-stealing, and he sometimes narrates our response to events – but they’re normal learning stuff. What intrigues me most is that at some point he very strongly picked up the idea of mixed results (“You succeed but…”) to the point where he uses them ALL THE TIME, so that part may take a little practice.

But it also revealed another tidbit to me in his relationship with the dice. When he rolls, he is really looking at the dice for what happens. He will occasionally remember that there are modifiers and such, but he does not have any instinctive sense of there being some invisible target number which is translated too and from somewhere off the table. This was weird to me at first (since target numbers, difficulties, move tables and such are all second nature to me by now) but if I remove my own baggage, it makes all the sense in the world. Why would he want interstitial steps?

So assuming I want to build to that, there are a few options, and the double-edged part of it is that they lean towards die pool systems. That’s double-edged because die pools are incredibly robust in a mechanical sense, but also can quickly become cumbersome game delays.

Option 1 is Blades in the Dark or a variant (possibly Blades of Fate). The number of dice equates to the chance of success, the highest single result tells you what kind of outcome (good, mixed, bad) you get. Building the pool is pretty simple, so it’s speedy, but there’s room for a little mechanical tooth.

Option 2 is something in the Cortex family. The idea of the size of dice matching to effectiveness is very intuitive, and the trick is all in how pools are built and how rolls are used. More mechanical versatility here, but also greater risk of feature creep.

Option 3 is diceless fate dice. Use a simple diceless system to answer Yes/No, but then add in a fate die roll (I’d be partial to 2df, but whatever) to reflect the situation. Very easy to do, quite powerful and intuitive, but it would also take him on a path very far from “normal” RPGs, especially in terms of what dice mean. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something to keep in mind.

(Since someone will surely ask, no, PBTA is not option 4. It’s a table lookup system, and while I suspect he’d enjoy that exercise, it seems like a dead end. The parts of PBTA I think he’d respond well to – playbooks and stunt like things – are better represented with Blades in the Dark tech, at least for my needs).

All of which is bubbling in my head. Practically, we’ll stick to D&D. Once he’s comfortable with 5e, that is a game that he can play with people who aren’t me, and that’s valuable. But also, there is nothing this kid wants more than a Magic: The Gathering tabletop experience and the Ravnica Books have only fueled the fire for this. I feel like that setting prompt, plus his system needs could dovetail very well.

Supporting GM Roles

Cards for the three GM roles discussed in this article: Celebrant, Authority and Entertainer.

These are not all the roles, just the 3 that I think the GM or system need to pick up. They aren’t exclusive to GMs of course, and there are other roles, but that’s probably another post.

After yesterday’s post about GM Roles, I had a fun discussion on G+ which proposed a model – given any set of GM roles (not just the bog three that I talk about – Authority, Entertainer & Celebrant) you can ask if a game ProvidesSupportsExpects, or Ignores that role.

If a game provides that role, then the game is designed to do the heavy lifting for that particular sort of work.  A very clear and strictly procedural game might provide authority.  A game with a lot of pre-generated content might provide entertainment.  A game with rituals and procedures for cross-engagement might provide celebration.

This is usually not absolute.  Computer games & RPGs need to fully provide these things, but in tabletop the players still have a role to play.  The GM still needs to do something for each role, but the game actively minimizes it.

A game that supports a role provides tools to help with the role, but those tools expect a higher level of GM engagement.  Any game with clear and comprehensive rules is supporting authority.  A game that provides prompts and seeds is supporting entertainment.  A game that has cross-table hooks is supporting celebration.

A game that ignores a role might provide incidental support for a role, but it’s not part of the design or intent.  This can be an oversight, but often it’s because the game has specific goals.  A very freeform game may ignore authority.  A small rules engine may ignore entertainment.  A lot of older games ignore celebration.

Obviously, it is something of a spectrum between providing, supporting and ignoring. There’s no precise metric to determine if a game strongly supports or weakly provides a role.  That’s fine – the utility of the model mostly relative anyway.

More tricky is the nuance of the difference between ignores and expects.

When a game expects a role, it may look a lot like it ignores it, but where ignoring a role happens because the designer doesn’t consider it important, expecting a role happened because the designer thinks it’s critical, and that it’s what the people at the table are bringing to the game.  A game that expects a role might still have a few rules to support that, but only a few – enough to nudge things.  Rules that nudge rather than push.

That is, a game might have very loose and simple rules because it expects authority to provide clarity and interpretation in flight.  A game might provide little in the way of content or inspiration because it expects entertainment to flow from the table.  A game might provide little in the way of celebration because it expects that people are already going to play in a  cooperative and supportive fashion.

As such, expectations contain a contradiction (one related to the “fruitful void”, of old) – their lack of tools is a reflection that they may be the *most important* thing in the designers mind.   They will also speak to the strengths and weaknesses of any given game.

I find this an interesting lens to turn to my game shelf.   It quickly becomes apparent that different games have prioritized differently. If there’s an example of a game that Provides all three roles, I haven’t found it.  A more common pattern is that a game provides one, supports another and expects a third.

For example, in my mind, Fate provides celebration, supports authority and expects entertainment. The whole aspect system is in place to make engaging with the content of people’s sheets a critical part of play – playing Fate without celebration requires ignoring a lot of the game.  It’s lighter on authority, partly because there’s room for interpretation, partly because it’s a semi-generic engine that expects there may be some assembly required. For entertainment, Fate largely stands back and expects the table to step up – the game is about YOUR characters and what you bring to the table.

This makes it a great game for people with authorial instincts but no desire to play games that feel like writing exercises (*cough*Me*cough) but it also highlights some of the weaknessesof Fate.  Expecting entertainment is very demanding, and can introduce blank page problems.  For a lot of players, Fate is a better game when it also supports entertainment (with setting material, prompts, sample aspects and so on), and tellingly that is the direction a lot of people have taken things.

Let’s compare that to Fiasco – I would say Fiasco supports authority, provides entertainment, and expects celebration.  Some of these are muddy – its authority support is on the strong side, and it has a few rules that might push celebration up to “support”, but I’m of with this general take on it.  Playset provide strong, driving prompts for entertainment, and there are enough rules to keep things moving, but lots of space for non-rules on the authority front.  Celebration is largely on the players, and is going to make or break the game.  This might seem like a gap, but phrased slightly differently, this is saying that the table is going to have as much fun as it wants to have.

On the other hand, there is a common Powered By The Apocalypse mode which provides authority, supports entertainment and expects celebration.  The rules are designed to strongly hold authority, but also provide prompts and suggestions as well as tools for structuring the entertainment portion of things, but celebration is expected to emerge from play.  Different PBTA games have tweaked this formula in different ways, so it’s far from cast in stone.

D&D is even more interesting to look at this way, because there have been enough D&D versions and derivations that you can see wildly different priorities between versions.  D&D that provides entertainment, expects authority and ignores celebration is a model that’s easy to recognize, but also interesting to contrast with 5e (which I would say takes the curious but appropriately middle-of-the-road position of supporting all three, but expecting or providing none).

Ok, so this is a fun toy. Categorization systems always are. But is it of any real use?

For me, at least a little.  The problem that is underlying all of this is my desire for a Santorini experience, and this model has emerged as I’ve looked for patterns to help with that.  I think explicitly examining what roles a game brings ot the table is going to make it a lot easier to intentionally design to cover for gaps.  So this is definitely going into my toolkit, and we’ll see what kind of nails it hammers.

The Role of GM

Saw another thing about the magic of GMless play the other day, and my response is largely what it always is: I think it’s nice, but it doesn’t really excite me.

To be clear, that’s not a criticism, it’s just a statement of taste. Games like Microscope and Fiasco are great, and can absolutely be fun to play. But they don’t scratch any particular itch for me. I enjoy them when I play them, but don’t necessarily seek them out. And there’s no harm in that – our tastes are not uniform, and it would kind of suck if they were.

But this is on my mind because a comment on my Santorini post cut right to the heart of one of the biggest challenges to a “pick up and play” RPG – the GM. There are decent tricks and tools for getting players ramped up very quickly, but the idea of going from zero to GM seems much more daunting.

One of the solutions to this is, of course, GMless play.

It seems like a no brainer. Cut the Gordian knot and remove the problem entirely. I have to respect a solution like that. And more, I acknowledge that for certain games (particularly those that unfold in a procedural manner) it can probably work really well. For these games, there is probably a lot to be said for looking at the kinds of things that companies like Stronghold Games are doing with making games with no rulebook, but which instead make teaching the game and emergent part of the gameplay.[1]

But it’s also a bit of a cheat, depending on the job you think the GM has. Critically, the GM is often the subject matter expert on the game in question. Obviously, this may not be the case for established tables, but we’re talking new players and new games here. In this case, the problem we encounter is that the GM’s lack of expertise is the thing we need to replace. That may not seem like a big deal until you consider that many GMless games skirt this problem by including a “facilitator” role.

This is not a bad thing: Every game is more easily learned and played when someone at the table is a familiar with it, so making space for that person is good design. But since we’re explicitly talking about picking up a game quickly, that option isn’t available to us. This doesn’t remove GMless games as a solution, but it means they’re in the same boat with everything else – looking at the question of how to convey what’s necessary in a playable fashion.

So, we’ve lost the silver bullet, but it’s highlighted something very useful. If we’re not going GMless, what does that mean?

People have a lot of answers to that question. I could fill pages with the differing interpretations of what a GM can and should be[2]. Hell, half the reason I shrug at the argument for GMless play is that they often rest on definitions of GM driven play which are very different than my experience or taste.

I can’t pretend to offer a comprehensive list of GM roles, but I do want to focus on what I consider the big 3, authority, entertainer and enabler.

The GM as authority is the expert on and boss of the game. She makes the choices about the game, enforces and interprets the rules, implements rule zero(or doesn’t) and is generally in charge. There is a lot of potential nuance around where that authority comes from, but the role is pretty simple. The advantages of this role is that it keeps things going and provides clarity for everyone at the table. The disadvantages are that this is a SUPER abusable dynamic, and a lot of game horror stories come from it going awry.[3]

The GM as entertainer is one that we tend to both ignore and take for granted. Classically, the idea is that the GM is generating (or using existing) content for the players to bounce off of and have a fun time. For many GMs, this is the best part. It’s an outlet for their creativity which they delight in sharing. They delight in it so much that we tend to overlook that this is work. This becomes relevant when we talk about new players – this is a hard role to step into from zero.

The GM as enabler (which sounds less weird than “servant”, the term I actually use in my head) is there to help the players along to the thing they want. I think of this as the most important role, since it is most closely tied to the table’s fun, but it’s also a tricky one. To do it successfully requires understanding what the table wants enabled, which is sometimes murky. Classically, we also have a problem with this role because it is the least well supported in our games and history.

EDIT:  in comments, Fred suggests celebrant as a better name for this, and he is 100% right.  Not only is it less weird, it also allows all three roles to be nouns (authority, entertainment and celebration) much more easily.  As such, that’s the term I’ll be using form now on. 

Now, these roles can be complimentary or contradictory from game to game and table to table. A GM might have strong authority and great entertainer skills while ignoring enabler responsibilities entirely, and her table might have an amazing time. Another GM might not entertain at all, but run a tight (authority), player-focused(enabler) game that everyone enjoys. There are many paths to a great game, and no one right route.

But I mention them in this context because it occurs to me that perhaps the trick may be to stop short of going GMless, and instead opt to explicitly narrow the GM’s role to something smaller and more specific.

The raw form this took when it popped into my head was “hey, what if the GM wasn’t tasked with coming up with content, but instead was just expected to learn some tools for helping players do cool things?”. I’d now restate that as “ok, can we teach the enabler role out of a box?”, and the thing is, i think we can.

In fact, I think we could teach any of those roles out of the box. The problem only becomes daunting when you try to teach more than one of them.

So now I find myself thinking about the differences in how i would teach those roles, and it highlights one more key point: you are under no obligation to stop at one role. I mean, feel free to do so – if you want to design your game so the GM’s role is pure enabler, then feel free. Just make sure you figure out how to make it fun for the GM.

But you can just as easily start from one role as the one to learn out of the box. And just as players will gain mastery and depth, so too can the GM. Other roles and responsibilities can be layer on after that first session of play has hooked them and left them hungry for more. THAT is when you can start laying it on thick.

Not sure if this helps anyone but me, but I am definitely feeling a step closer to a workable model here.

1 – Though this sounds great on paper, the one downside I’ve found to this approach is that I’ve only seen it work for fairly simple games. The idea is a good one, but I am not yet sure how it scales.

2 – But here’s one crazy one: it is pretty dumb that we treat the role of GM as the same from game to game rather than a function of each game-as written and game-as-played.

3 – This does not make it all bad. A table can knowingly grant someone authority because they trust them to make it worthwhile, and that combination of authority and trust can make for AMAZING play. But that takes a lot of work, and it not for everyone, which is fine. But I want to mention it because for many people, GM authority is automatically toxic, and I disagree with that notion pretty strongly.

The Santorini Experience

Picture of the boardgame box for Santorini I Was in the position of entertaining a tween the other day, so I busted out Santorini. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Santorini is a delightful boardgame of tower building and Greek gods. It’s a favorite around our household.

But what made it very useful in this context was something else. While it is a very deep, flexible and replayable game, its core is incredibly simple: move a builder, then place a tower piece, plus some win conditions. It literally took more time for us to open up the box and set up than it took for me to teach everything he needed to know to play.

Now, if this was all there was to the game, it would be fun but shallow(but, critically, it’s still fun in its simplest form), but the game has space for additional layers of complexity. Once you know the rules, each player can take on the role of one of the gods, which allows them to add one special move to the game (Hermes can move his units farther, for example). There are varying levels of complexity to the gods, and the game unfolds uniquely based on the interplay between the gods chosen (all to say nothing of other expansions, like heroes).

So the result is something that is trivial to learn, immediately rewarding to play, but scales up in complexity and depth with player interest. That’s pretty awesome.

Ok, so with that in mind, I want to bring up another conversation that threaded through Metatopia.

PAX unplugged is coming up in about two weeks, and a lot of people are going to be curious how it goes. Last year it was a whole new thing, and no one knew quite what to expect, and some of our guesses were just wrong.

Most tellingly, the reports from people in the dealer’s hall were wildly varied – some booths sold like mad, while others had very little traction at all. This is a little bit weird, but I have a theory about it based on my own observations. See, the PAX unplugged crowd was not the usual gaming convention crowd – they were the PAX crowd – and they brought in a different culture. This showed up in a lot of ways (they are WAY more line tolerant, for one thing) but was maybe most interesting in relation to games.

What I observed was that it was a crowd with a deep enthusiasm for games and play, but not necessarily a lot of patience. There’s a cynical interpretation of that, but I largely took it as a result of them not having bought into the various things we think about how games “should” be. Most specifically, this meant they wanted games that they could buy, walk over to a table, and play.

That makes sense when you say it out loud, but when I stop an think about most “gamer” games, especially RPGs, the disconnect becomes apparent. Most RPG purchases follow more of a pattern of “One person buys it, spends time reading it, then spends time prepping, then gathers a group to try this thing out”. I don’t tend to think much of it because that’s just how it’s done, but to a newcomer that has got to just seem stupid.

Presuming this is a market we want to reach out to (I know I do), it raises the question of what needs to change. “Quick Start” sets have been around in RPGs forever, but they are usually more like marketing promos or GM aids than anything to actually help play start quickly.[1]. Tech tricks like putting choose your own adventures in the game book have helped shorten the ramp-up for prospective GMs, but that only produces marginal results.

We’ve seen decent success with semi-RPG boardgames (Gloomhaven being the current hotness) that hit many RPG notes but use boardgame style setup. This is interesting and educational to me, but it’s not a line I wish to pursue because it solves different problems than the ones that intrigue me. That it, removing the parts that make RPGs hard also removes the parts that make them most interesting to me.

To this end I am intrigued by the rising “Larp in a Box” category, which you can see in Ghost Court and which I expect is going to EXPLODE on the scene when the new release of Fiasco comes out. Unsurprising, since the Bully Pulpit folks are crazy clever. There’s also some really neat emergent play tech happening in things like Alex Roberts’ For The Queen.

So I’m watching these things and taking notes, because the thing I realized while playing with that tween is that what I ultimately want is to be able to deliver that Santorini experience with an RPG. Get playing immediately and enjoyably, but be able to expand complexity with mastery and interest.

It should be doable. I can see the pieces of it in my head. But getting them to gel is going to be the trick.

1 – Eternal exception for the Exalted QuickStart, which was not much of a pointer for Exalted as written, but in its own terms was one of the best games I’ve ever read.

Playability in Settings

Setting is, to my mind, utterly essential to RPGs, and has also been the poor cousin to rules design in a lot of the deeper discussions of RPGs. I’m not entirely sure how to address that, but I think a good start involves looking at setting design with the same eye we’ve applied to rules, and see what we find.

On my mind at the moment is the question of what makes a setting particularly playable. This is not the same thing as what makes a setting good or compelling, and in fact, a good, compelling setting can end up making a very good game even if it has no elements that make it more explicitly gameable.

While this is far from a comprehensive list, these are the elements that float to top of mind for me.


Unless the setting implicitly keeps the entire group of characters within shouting distance (something dungeons do) then they need some means of staying in touch. In the absence of this, you can end up with difficult pacing problems if the game starts going one particular direction without one or more players participating. Communication (and its companion, ease of travel) is the solution for this. Modern games have an easy solution to this with cell phones, but things like Amber’s trumps can fill this purpose as well.

As a paradoxical bonus, the presence of a communication element is necessary to make the absence of communication into a plot element. Running from zombies and trying to find cell signal is something you can’t do in 1974.


If your game is going to have any amount of violence, then you need some way to keep long hospital trips from bogging down the game, you need some logic to address this. It might be a genre thing (as in cinematic or supers games), or it might be an element intrinsic to characters (like Vampires and Amberites) or some easy means of healing (like spells or some magical substance); whatever the form it takes, the real purpose is to keep play moving.

The exact means of recovery may also be a plot element in its own right, so its worth considering that this doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Social Context

This can take a lot of different forms, but it is best described as characters having a role in the setting, something that has a context beyond themselves, but still of an understandable scale. A family or secret society might fill this roll, but a nationality won’t because it’s simply too big.

The litmus test for this is whether or not it helps answer questions about what the character does and has done “off camera” and how well armed they are to answer questions and make decisions without a full GM briefing. That may not seem intuitive, but consider that the social context provides resources with faces – people who you can talk to and turn to in complicated situations. Not only is that play generating, it creates a virtuous cycle where that play reinforces social ties, which in turn allow fodder for more play.

However, one needs to be careful to keep contexts playable. It is structurally better to have everyone within the same context, or at least within one context, otherwise the context draw away from play. Consider the problem when every player is an agent of a different group – you can construct something artificial to tie them together, but it’s tricky to maintain. Easier to either use different groups or subgroups. Consider these examples:

  • In Vampire, characters were members of their clan, but they were also part of the political structure of their city. The latter could help bring a group together without the former completely pulling them apart.
  • In Eberron, the Great Houses were really interesting and colorful, but they were potent enough ideas that they wanted to pull the game in their own direction. Unfortunately, because it was paired to the power system, it was easy to end up with things pulling apart.
  • Amber has the family has an overarching group, but it has numerous shifting factions and alliances within that group.

Mobility or Position

This is not literal mobility (though that has a place, as noted under communication) but rather social (or social-ish) mobility. Characters need to have the opportunity to change their situation through their own efforts. Partly this is something that helps buy into the context of the setting, but it’s also a big avenue for player-generated plots – if they have something they want that they can get, then sooner or later they’re going to get motivated to go after it. It’s also worth noting that while this may interact with character advancement, there’s no guarantee that it will.

The alternative for this is to give the players position (and with it, responsibility). It’s a similar play motivator, just from the other end. People like being important, and important people have things to do.

There’s no reason a setting can’t have both of these, but one or the other will suffice.

I am by no means asserting that a game can’t be fun without these, or that a setting can’t work without them, but I know that when I sit down to scratch out a setting (or even a sub-part of a setting) for a game, these are the things I try to make sure are present.