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Warp Noodling

Real life events have meant we’re skipping 7th Sea for March, which is a bummer, but also means the blog has been quiet. So, sorry for that.  

I have been chewing a little bit on the greatly underused OGL WARP system, the mechanics behind Over the Edge.  It’s a a very light system – roughly akin to a fractionally more crunchy Risus – and it will forever have a place in my heart as the game the completely blew open the doors of my mind regarding how an RPG character could be expressed. At the time that I read it, I’d been playing Rolemaster, and delighting in my 17 page character sheets (including spell lists).  I’d seen other systems that just used a smaller set of numbers (As small as the Amber DRPGs 4 stats) but structurally things were still built on this stat-centric idea. 

OTE dispensed of that in favor of descriptors. A character could be a Burly(3d) Smuggler (4d) Art Snob (3d)  with a Terrible Sense of Humor and that would cover it (less details like name and color).  Not only did that tidily fit on an index card, it tidily and meaningfully fit in the mind. The mechanical expression was closer to the character description than I had ever seen.

So, yeah. Blew my mind. It’s influence is still pretty obvious.  There were a lot of other amazing things about Over the Edge too, but this is the one that left the deepest mark. 

I mention all this because a while back, the underlying system was released under OGL by Atlas (because they’re awesome). I did up an ok PDF version of it that I’m sure I still have somewhere and which I consistently think I should get back to. But I’ve never actually done anything with it. 

That might change.  I have some ideas niggling in my mind that might lead to some hacking in the near future.  So I figured I’d give at least a little heads up.

7th Sea: From Kirkwall to Carleon

whalingPlay started in Kirkwall (aka “Kurkle”) with the players having a few points of wealth from their dealings, but a ship whose damage would take twice as much money to fix. So, before things got started, we took a moment to flash back on Captain Quinn.

Quinn is a Glamour practitioner, and we hadn’t really talked through what that means in the game. For the unfamiliar, there are a limited number of Glamour users, each one corresponding to a legendary knight. I am always a big fan of magic that is limited to a number of named practitioners because it suggests fun social dynamics and knowing people by name, so we’re going to lean on that a little bit.

But we also had a bit of a snag. Glamour powers are tied to 2 stats, and which two stats they are depend upon the historical knight the character has picked. Now, Quinn had specifically wanted some of the Resolve tricks, so his range of choices was fairly limited, and he picked Theofric, the Beloved. The problem is that it’s a choice the player absolutely did not give a crap about – it didn’t resonate with his character at all, so much so that he didn’t even remember which knight he was tied to. So we discussed at a little before play and we switched his knight to The Sailor, which made much more sense, but I let him keep his resolve powers, because the thematic match seemed much more important than the mechanics (especially since he’s still limited to 2 stats). I admit, from this point, I’m going to treat the Glamour stat pairs as suggestions more than rules, and I think it will be a lot more satisfying overall.

That also let us talk a little bit about when the Graal revealed itself to Quinn – at a point when he died – and that he answered the call and bent knee to Elaine, and is for all intents and purposes a secret spy for her. This also marked his transition from Pirate to Smuggler, since the knight’s code makes pillage a little difficult.

Now, for me, the key takeaway here is that Quinn is an Elaine loyalist, which I needed to know before entangling the characters in any politics in the Highland Marches1. I actually have something up my sleeve on that front, but I had no good way to pull it in gracefully. So instead, we went with whaling.

Whaling in 7th Sea has been on my mind as I’ve been playing Dishonored, so between Quinn’s contacts at the castle and the Professor Valdis’s Invisible College contacts2 they found their way to a Vodacce professor of Biology and his Marcher partner, Angus MacBride, who had built an immense whaling ship, but as it was highly experimental, they needed as captain and some crew for her maiden voyage. In return for this, MacBride would repair their ship, and (after some haggling) actually improve it (removing it’s “Hangar Queen” drawback).

While waiting to depart, Professor Valdis discovered that she had a bit of a following at the local university, and after late night drinking and fund raising (with some magical help) she ended up setting up a futures market in cod, which raised some eyebrows, but will probably pay off, as it was a step in her buying the Wealthy advantage.

The whaling voyage itself was more colorful than anything else. There were some interesting NPCs among the crew (the Irish whaling master and the Eisen engineer) and a few challenges to keep the ship (which steers like a pregnant elephant) in shape, but mostly it was a lot of middle of nowhere in the ocean. They did eventually find a Leviathan, and between depth charges and strangely hi-tech harpoon cannons managed to kill the beast and winch it up.

That, of course, is where things went wrong. That night a fog rolled in while the whalers were mostly passed out drunk, and a Viking longship pulled up alongside and attacked.

Short version: The good guys won.

Longer version: I’m still working on balancing combat. I explicitly amped up the challenge on this one because things have been a bit too easy so far. I went for two brute squads of strength 8 each, and two villains with 12 dice each. I worried a little bit about the villains, but our Swordsman got his weaponry up to 4 dots last session, so he’s now building raises with 15s, so I figured he could handle it. One of the villains was a swordsman, the other had runic magic, which I sketched out loosely. She had a potent fear effect and the ability to chuck around lightning. The fear effect would have been a real problem, but our Swordsman’s virtue cancels it out, so he had a nice dramatic moment as fear paralyzed the crew, but he called out a rally, and lead the counterattack.

First round of combat started rough. The enemy swordsman had 2 more raises than the next hero, so he pretty solidly waled on our swordsman with some free shots, but after that, things shifted directions quickly. Our Acrobat provided enough distraction to the swordsman out allow our Swordsman to regain the upper hand. Professor Valids’s reckless takedown obliterated one of the brute squads, and between her and Captain Quinn, the brutes were pretty well wiped out. Second round went much less well for the bad guys – our Swordsman’s dice turned, and he managed to finish off the opponent with a Ruse and a Lunge, allowing everyone else to dogpile the runecaster, culminating in her being impaled by a harpoon (which also kind of sank the longboat).

It was an ok fight, but I’m still wrestling with the challenges of the system, some of which crystallized a bit more:

  • I really want to try a fight sometime with no duelists, because it really feels like the system would flow a little bit more smoothly in group scenes. When you have one duelist in the group, he’s operating at a different cadence than everyone else, and that keeps things from feeling as fluid as they might.
  • I have been feeling obliged to use dueling rules for villains to keep them dangerous, but I think that’s been a bad idea. Partly, it’s keeping me from using their raises more creatively, but partly it’s just a pain in the ass. I’ll use them when he villain is an actual honest to god member of the guild, in an actual duel, but I need to come up with some shorthand rules for making villains dangerous with less fiddliness.
  • We have had several fights now where the crew has been part of the fight, and Captain Quinn really wants to be leading and directing them in battle, which falls flat if I use straight brute rules for them. I’ve made some on-the-fly calls to support it, but I need something a little more toothy.
  • Stakes on that fight were a little flat. That was on me, but it’s a reminder of how much I like have discrete elements in play (a la Fate or Cortex Plus) on the table in front of me, to threaten and engage.
  • That actually speaks to something I need to do with the system at large – the amount that a villain can do with a raise is huge and potentially somewhat overwhelming. Perhaps more problematic, it’s also complete. I need to more consciously take the diceless tempo of Threaten-Act-Threaten-Act. That makes for much more satisfying exchanges.
  • I end up really cheating on the villain rules for the sake of play, and I think that may be part of the problem.  Named villains capable of taking on a group of heros have more abilities than I can casually track, but at the same time, I really need a handle on opposition that holds up better than a brute squad.  I’ve been using lower strength villains with amped up die pools in lie of advantages (because I am not going to do the math) but it’s a total duck tape solution.

The trip back to dock was slow, but mostly uneventful, save for the Leviathan following the ship deep beneath he waves, which could not possibly be a harbinger of things to come.

Back in Kirkwall, Quinn picked up some letters from MacDuff’s cousin, to deliver to him in Carleon. Professor Valdis had to subdue an angry Marcher who was trying to find where all the fish were, and also made off with a vial of leviathan oil, since it turns out to have some very peculiar attributes (notably that it generates electric current when burnt). Angus McBride also had a proposition for them, in that he had a passenger he needed pick up in Montaigne and returned to Kirkwall, so they bought a load of felt (for hats, in Montaigne) and set off to Carleon, with Montaigne their next destination.

In Carleon, Quinn stopped by the palace to deliver the courier pouch to MacDuff. This took an interesting turn when, after some time in a waiting room, MacDuff himself showed up and handed Quinn a box, explaining that he needs to give it to Elaine, and report that he got it from the viking pirates he fought. Quinn was rather caught off guard, but agreed because you don’t say no the the MacDuff. However, he enlisted his companions to investigate the box, and discovered it to contain some coin, but also a ring and brooch containing the heraldry of one Ser Mandrake, a man that Quinn knew as another Glamour Knight in the service of Elaine.

He ended up going along with MacDuff’s plan, and during his audience with Elaine (which MacDuff was also attending) he went along with MacDuff’s plan, though he has no idea what the goal was. Because politics. Elaine returned the coins to him, but kept the brooch and ring, looking concerned.

And that’s about where we wrapped. It was a good session, but I really feel like I failed to bring enough spotlight for our Acrobat. She had a little bit of Daughters of Sophia action, but I don’t quite have the same level of purchase with her that I do with the other characters. However, she has the potential of having far reaching enemies, so I think I may need to lean on that for the future.

I’m also slightly disappointed that I had printed up a GM cheatsheet for the game but forgot to bring it. We’ll have to see how that plays out next time.

  1. My least favorite thing about the Marches is the lack of a good adjectives and terms. Describing things as “Marchish” and people as “Marchers” sounds awful, enough so that I will sometimes just say “Scottish” or “Scots” and we roll with it. The best match I’ve been able to find is “Highlands” and “Highlanders” but it’s does not exactly flow off the tongue. ↩︎
  2. As an aside, I am really growing to like the Secret Society rules. They are a lot more robust than they seem at first glance, and provide wonderful motivations an opportunities for actions. I begin to suspect that the true secret heart of the game is Stories and Secret Societies, and I’m very much OK with that. ↩︎


Picking a Backpack

The Tom Bihn Synapse 25, AKA the backpack I am currently balancing my laptop on.

The Tom Bihn Synapse 25, AKA the backpack I am currently balancing my laptop on.

Ok, you’ve decided you want a backpack. I’m not going to worry about how you came to this conclusion (though I have opinions) , but  whatever your reasons, your back thanks you.

I’m going to broadly assume that this is a backpack for day to day use. Maybe you need to tote your computer and papers too and from work. Maybe you need to haul your gear to the coffee shop. Whatever the case, we’re not talking about hiking or other specialized uses here. Even if you need it for a specific case (like a bag for a trip of convention) you’re mostly talking about something the cool kids would call and EDC (“Everyday Carry”) bag.

IF YOU REALLY DON”T CARE then let’s cut to the chase:

  • Got to ebags and search around til you find something cool. Their filtering tools are awesome.
  • Check if it’s cheaper on Amazon.
  • Order

If you do care, then please continue.

When you pick a bag, there are five things you want to think about: Cost, Utility, Durability, Comfort and Fashion.

We’ll talk more about cost in a little bit, but this is probably the easiest one to judge: Is the backpack within your budget? If yes, then the cost is fine. Easy peasy.

Utility is all the factors that make the backpack useful to you, which in turns depends upon what you want to carry in it. If you just need to carry your laptop, some cables and maybe a notebook and pencil, you need a much smaller backpack than the one you’re going to haul all of your D&D books around in. Stop and look about what you actually carry now. Take the opportunity to decide if there’s any dead weight you could trim, but also make sure to capture things you might regret the absence of (like power cables). When you look at a bag, think about where those things are going to go. A few items to consider for the utility of your bag:

  • When in doubt, be wary of too many pouches and pockets. Some amount of organization in a backpack can be useful, but too much and you end up wasting a lot of space, both for the pockets and for all the things that don’t fit them exactly. Better to get a bag with large compartments, then divide it yourself with sub-bags. There are reams of bags available for this use, but for my money there are few things as useful as a 6 dollar zipper bag, the kind banks used to use – You can get them on Amazon, no problem. Toss your pens or cables into one or two of those, and any bag becomes organized.
  • Pay attention to how the bag closes and opens. There is a tendency among fancier bags to use buckles or funky hooks because they look great, but they are usually a pain, Often they require two hands to operate, or require you to hold the pack just so. That may seem like a minor thing, but the hundredth time you fish something out of your bag, you’ll notice.
  • Also pay attention to how you’ll carry it. Obviously, you’ll use the shoulder straps a lot of the time, but when you set it down and pick it up, it’s very useful to have some other strap or handle on top of the bag that you can easily grab to haul it around.
  • Most bags will have a laptop sleeve, and that’s great, but they’re not necessarily created equal. First, make sure you can get to it reasonably easily. Some backpacks (especially TSA compliant ones) require unzipping a LOT to just get at your laptop. Be careful of that. Second, check the bottom of the laptop sleeve: if it is flush with the bottom of the pack, you’re more likely to damage the laptop when you drop it. If the bottom is separate, that space buys you a little bit more protection.
  • Regarding TSA compliance – it is not worth having a crappy bag to make your trip through the X-ray fractionally easier.  If that is an issue, consider investing in a laptop sleeve and just pulling your computer out fo the bag.
  • Very few bags are truly waterproof, though they may offer varying degrees of water resistance. Look at the zippers, closures and materials to get a sense of how comfortable you’d be out in the rain with it. If you’re worried, but you like your pack, consider a backpack cover. It’s effectively a poncho for your backpack – inexpensive and easy to pack.

Durability is a hard one to judge if you’re buying online (and you probably are). Some brands, like GoRuck or Redoxx build their reputation on their durability, but that is baked into the price tag. Rather than worry about this too much, pay attention to how the brand of the bag handles returns. Many bag makers will stand behind their product 100%, no questions asked, and you want that confidence. Not only is is an indicator in their faith in their product, it is a safety net for you.

But that said, don’t just read the blurb. Go do their website and start doing a return – you’ll quickly see which bag makers really want to help you and which ones make it a pain in the ass.1

Comfort is also tricky online. The best backpack in the world is still going to suck if it pinches your neck. A good return policy can help with that, but there’s no substitute for actually going into a store and walking around. If you go to an outdoor store, like REI or EMS, they will have weights (usually over by the climbing or hiking gear) that you can stuff into the backpack to simulate a full load. Otherwise, just bring your own load (books are great for this), fill it up and walk around for a while. Places that know their business are either used to this or don’t care. If they do care, that’s not a place to spend your money.

Fashion probably made a few few folks sneer or shrug, especially the guys, but this is a thing. The backpack is a very visible thing that you’ll be carrying a lot, and like it or not, it conveys a message about you. What more, you probably have an image of yourself – a writer in a cafe, a business professional, Indiana Jones – that you may want the bag to align with. The two mains axes for fashion are material and ornamentation.

For materials, most bags will be nylon, canvas, cloth or leather. Nylon is the most utilitarian (it’s durable can be used in many ways) but since it’s the default, it’s easy to dismiss as uninteresting. That’s unfair in some cases, but I must concede Nylon is the choice you make when you don’t care.

Canvas usually looks much nicer than nylon, but it’s much less reliable as a material. There is very good canvas, but also very cheap canvas, and it can be very hard to tell the difference just by looking. Waterproofing is an especially pernicious question for canvas. Be explicitly warned – there are a lot of really nice looking, really cheap canvas bags coming out of China these days, and their durability is in line with their price.

Cloth is something of an oddball – often it’s just a shell wrapped around a nylon core, so it’s entirely a function of appearance. But sometimes the whole bag is really made out of wool (or “smartwool”) or something, and that can be a little weird. If you like it, awesome, but just make sure to look closely and be confident it will hold up to wear and tear.

Leather is, of course, the deluxe option. It can look nice, feel nice, and hold up very well. But it’s expensive, and it often offers less modern design than other material (because you can shape and pad nylon shoulder straps, not so much with leather). If you want leather, nothing else will do, but be skeptical and demanding. Cheap (or fake) leather will take your money and leave you weeping as your beautiful backpack falls apart.

Ornamentation is simpler, and can be summed up with these two images:



Both are nylon business backpacks, but they have very different external styles. Both are fine, but be cognizant of what you want.

Such tactical. Very straps.

Such tactical. Very straps.

One particular style you’ll see a lot are molle straps. These have many practical benefits because they are designed to let you attach things to your pack. It’s a module design with military roots that is super popular with people who like to use the word “tactical” in their fashion discussions. I won’t say to avoid these – they make great pen loops – but be aware that they read as “military enthusiast” for good or ill.





Ok, with all those details out of the way, let’s talk about actually buying the bag. The earlier advice about just going to ebags and poking around still stands. It’s an amazing site, and you can probably find what you need there.

That said, let’s talk about cost.

Budget ($50 and under)

If you are one a tight budget, less than $50, your choices are limited, but there are more than you might think. In this space, the Jansport (yes, that Jansport) brand and the ebags house brand offer a number of very nice, very practical packs. High Sierra and Swiss Gear also make some packs in this space, and they’re good, but I don’t trust them quite enough.

If you really want quirky style on a limited budget, then Herschel Supplyhas a number of nice options. They’re very bare bones, but they’re solid canvas bags without the risk of Chinese knockoffs. Look for them on ebags or amazon – they’re cheaper than the main site. Also, keep an eye on the bags sales – sometimes they can be amazing.

The last option is to shop secondhand. This can be a roll of the dice, but if you familiarize yourself with the better brands, you can often find them very cheap secondhand. Be very leery of packs whose brands you don’t recognize, but attentive for the brands that you know stand behind their product. They will frequently fix or replace them no matter the source.

Intermediate (up to around $100-120)

This is the sweet spot for most people, and absolutely the space I’d recommend for the best balance of price and quality. It’s also the space where you’re going to find more options than you can possibly get your head around, so I’m just going to suggest a few brands with comments.

  • Timbuk2 – You probably know them for their distinctive messenger bags, but their backpacks are also worth a look. They are well constructed and rugged, and the company stands very strongly behind their product. They also come in a wide enough array of colors and designs that you can often find something to your taste. They’re hard to go wrong with, and for a lot of people, Timbuk2 is the first “serious” bag brand they buy.
  • L.L. Bean, REI, and EMS – I mention these three together because they’re very similar. All three are primarily outdoor stores, but all three carry a wide variety of EDC packs, including their own (excellent) house brands. All three stand behind their products admirably.
  • Jansport – I mentioned them in the budget section, but they also have a wide array of very well designed intermediate bags. These guys know their stuff, and I have been consistently impressed with how smart their designs are. Herschel and Bags brands also have some strong contenders in this space.
  • Chrome Industries – These guys are on the pricey side of this mark, but worth it. Curiously, I’ve never owned a Chrome bag, but every time I get in these discussions with friends, the people with Chrome bags are guaranteed to chime in with how happy they are. It’s happened enough that I’m willing to accept it at true.
  • North Face – They’re primarily an outdoor outfitter, and their packs largely look it, but they’ve been branching out into the daypack space, and have a few interesting designs. They’re reliable.
  • High Sierra, Swiss Gear and Ogio deserve mention because you will see a lot of their packs around. They are almost always good looking, well designed and reasonably priced, but I cannot recommend them as strongly as other brands because their durability is only ok. This can be heartbreaking – finding a bag that is perfect but which breaks is worse than never finding it at all.
  • Carryology (A lovely blog) had a recent roundup review of the best backpacks under $100. I don’t 100% agree with the list, but it’s a good read all the same.

Fancy Pants (Up to the $300s)

Ok, fess up – if you’re buying a bag in this price range, you’re a bag nerd. This is a really interesting range because it’s the very bottom of the fashion price range (Tumi has some lovely packs that start at around $400) but it’s the sweet spot for utility packs. These tend towards the extremes of design or durability (or both) and tend to be produced by smaller, somewhat fanatic, companies in America. Again, a few brands worth looking at:

  • Goruck – Goruck bags are designed to go on multi-mile runs through obstacle courses while carrying 10 or 20 pound metal plates. This may seem oddly specific, but it’s actually a thing, and it makes for a bag that is well designed and very nearly indestructible. The Goruck GR1 is a gold standard for backpacks.
  • Redoxx – Founded by paratroopers in Montana, Redoxx delights in pictures of their bags taken all over the world and put in impossibly tough situations. I particularly love them for their bags, but their backpacks are also indestructible. In particular, they use amazing hardware – the hoops and zippers on my Redoxx gear seem very nearly bombproof.
  • Tom Bihn – Compared to the first two, Bihn bags might be described as merely indestructible. They’re not quite as manically rugged, but they’re incredibly well made and incredibly well designed. Of particular note are the Synapse 19 and 25 – they’re great packs of different sizes, and suited to greater and lesser heights. Under 6 foot? the 19 is probably right. Otherwise, the 25 is likely the way to go.
  • Waterfield Designs – We start dipping into fashion here because these are achingly lovely bags, combining wonderfully well done leather and canvas while still being incredibly practical.
  • Briggs and Riley – When you need a backpack that screams “BUSINESS”, these are the guys to go with. They’re so professional looking it hurts, but are very well made and very well organized.
  • Bonus North Face – North Face has a new backpack called the Access. It is new enough that I still have not seen one, as they seem to sell out instantly. As such, I cannot recommend or criticize it, but I do share that it has a really awesome video.

Super Fancy Pants (Everything Else)

Ok, at this point we are outside of my area of expertise. Not even going to try. Suggestions welcome.

So, hopefully that’s a useful starting point.  I suspect that folks might have opinions, so feell fee to add em in the comments!

  1. You can also mitigate this risk by buying from a retailer like REI who will stand behind the product even if the manufacturer drops the ball. ↩︎

Two Idle 7th Sea Thoughts


If you hate social combat, then keep moving.

7218_ridicule-01If you like social combat, then there is no reason it could not be trivially mapped to 7th Sea, where wounds are also “shame” and there is a shame spiral. Social “attacks” can inflict shame (and may even have duelist style maneuvers) and the equivalent of a serious wound is an “Embarrassment”.

Probably easiest to make the shame spiral a separate track from the death spiral, but I’d probably be inclined to mix them. 🙂

Action Heroes

This is less of a hack fro 7th Sea and more of a hack for people wanting to use 7th Sea elsewhere.

There is a particular category of films and fiction, largely within the action genre, where a character is ultra-badass at something, and merely badass at everything else (excepting possible things they may be actively bad at for dramatic or comedic reasons). 7th’s seas Raise pool can model this pretty simply with a tweak to the rules for changing skills. It works kind of like this:

  1. Generate your pool based on your ultra-badassness, whatever that is.
  2. So long as you act within your ultra badassness, all is as normal.
  3. If you take an action outside of your ultra-badassness, pay a tax of one raise. This is a one time charge. All subsequent merely badass actions are now accounted for,
  4. Optional Rule: If you take an action you stink at, pay a tax of 3 (or an additional 2, if you already paid the 1 for being merely badass).

What this does is map turn the usual problem of raise use drifting from the source roll into a feature when playing with heroes (superspies and action heroes) who are good at (almost) everything.

As an option, you can make the badass tax 2 raises, which reinforces niche protection, but also makes everyone a little less badass. Better to make the niches cooler through means like the duelists styles.

If you do chargen for this, then it is a simple as:

Badass: Driver!
Useless: Stealth!

and voila, you’re done.

As a general rule, I would say that fighting is never allowed to be the ultra-badass thing. First, because too many people would take it. Second, because if the genre is all about super badass fighting – like martial arts – then everyone has it (and if you must, assume that everyone’s ultra-badass is “thing + fighting”. Third, because it’s kind of dull.

Kill Your Cliffhangers

cliffhangerThe Invisible Sun kickstarter has me thinking a lot about how to handle gameplay in a world of erratic schedules and spotty attendance. I think there are a lot of techniques for dealing with this that I either take for granted or don’t think about very much, and I would like to really unpack them into something useful.

The rub is that there are two different categories of issues here, one that stems from an excess of time, one that stems from a shortage. There are a lot of great techniques for dealing with an excess of time – flashbacks, one off scenes, bluebooking, parallel play and so on. These are great ways for players to participate in the game outside of the time at the table, and these contributions can be pulled into play. This is fun, and I’ll totally get back to it at another time, but my real problem is at the other end of the spectrum.

What can you do when there’s not enough time to play and scheduling is a problem? As folks get older and there start being things like kids and more demanding careers, this is a real concern. This is certainly the space I’m in, and I’ve put no small amount of work into finding tricks for dealing with this.

The first and most critical change has entailed a change to the underlying structure of the games I run. This takes a number of different forms, but their shared purpose is to make it logical for players to come and go with some frequency.

The most straightforward solution to this is to support these comings and goings in game. This isn’t hard if the game has some underlying weirdness – there can be some in-setting reason for people to become dimensionally untethered, slip out of time or fall back to the waking world at inopportune moments (and re-appear just as easily). I infer that Invisible Sun does this through The Shadow, and it’s a good trick.

This trick can be used in a lot of places, but not everywhere. Sometimes it’s just a poor match for the setting, and you need to figure out another approach. The solution I’be found works best is a combination of fixed locations, episodic play and an ensemble cast.

Fixed location games are those that take place in one general location, such as a city or a space station. The nature of the place is such that adventure and adventure opportunities come to the location, and the heroes only rarely need to venture outside of it. Examples include Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, and any number of fantasy cities, with the best examples probably found in shared fiction, like Sanctuary or Liavek.

One element of this location is that characters need to have a role within its context. This might be a position of importance (head of security) or just proximity (it’s the port they call home) but whatever form it takes, it serves as the thing the character is doing when not in play. This is not just for color – it is the thing that provides the explanation for why they’re not available. Even if it would be great to have Security Officer Rimbaldi along on this bug hunt, he’s got a matter to deal with over in the diplomat wing, and he can’t get free.

This idea of a role creates a problem for using starship crews or magical academies as the heart of a fixed location. It’s not impossible, but you need to take steps to explicitly address why some people are only available some of the time.

Even without the role, the fixed location makes it very easy for the group to reconnect whenever necessary. If the game is on the move, you not only need to justify a departure, but also figure out how people get back together, and that can be even more of a bear.

Episodic Play is one of those ideas that seems like it should be simple, but fights against a lot of habit. As the name suggests, a session of play is more like an episode of a television show than a part of a serial. There are a lot of implications to this, but the biggest one flies in the face of decades of GM advice, some of which I have authored myself – it means you need to retire the cliffhanger.

Yes, the cliffhanger is a time-honored tradition, one very strongly baked into our lore. When you see a good depiction of gaming in the media, it almost always ends with the GM introducing something terrible then announcing “and we’ll see you all next week!”, to the collected groans of the table.

So this is hard advice to give, but if you have uneven attendance, cliffhangers are going to make you’re life harder. Not only may you lose players between cliffhanger and resolution, you also need to deal with players who missed the cliffhanger coming in for the resolution, and there is not a lot that takes the air out of a cliffhanger like needing to re-explain it.

In the absence of cliffhangers, the goal becomes to wrap up a complete arc within one session, which requires a lot of attention to pacing. Thankfully there are a few tricks to simplify things, both in prep and in play.

In prep, take a little bit of extra time to think about the exit ramps from your scenario, sort of like inverted hooks. The iconic example of this is the dungeon – a 5 room dungeon might make for a night’s entertainment, but a 50 room labyrinth is going to leave you ending mid-dungeon. That may sound anemic, but look around online – there are a lot of very good small dungeon scenarios out there, and they’re worth a look. Owen K.C. Stephens in particular has a knack for them.

In play, be more aggressive in your use of the “camera” as GM. When it comes time to frame a scene, do it aggressively and generously. By aggressively, I mean start the action close to the action, and by generously I mean do it in a way that assumes the characters have been smart and competent. Using scene framing to screw players is a great way to destroy trust, but doing it generously is a great way to get their buy in.

By the same token, know when to tie things off and move onto the next scene. You don’t always need to do this – sometimes players want to sit around and chew the fat. But if they’re doing that 2 hours into a 4 hour session, then keep things moving. But if you can get this sense of timing down, then short scenes become a viable option. That may seem a small thing, but if your table is comfortable resolving some things quickly, then a lot more can be happening in your world without it needing to be all epic all the time.

Short scenes also mean that if your game comes to a conclusion at the 3 hour mark in a 4 hour session, you have things to do with that last hour. That relieves a lot of the stress to time things out just so.

I’ve mentioned time twice so far, but it bears mention a third time. Once you start looking to get in a full session in the window you have available, it helps to watch the clock. This one is hard for me – it feels counterintuitive. I want to get into the flow of the moment and time will take care of itself. But that’s a selfish instinct. I don’t need to be a slave to the map, but I should be aware of it.

We’re just skimming the surface here, but this is one of those areas where it’s worth studying what makes for good television. You don’t need to go full Prime Time Adventures, but it’s worth seeing what makes the episodic TV you like exciting to you and seeing how to translate that to the table.

The Ensemble Cast is another idea easily traced to television where the idea is that the entire cast is larger than you’ll see in any given episode. Star Trek provides numerous examples of this – the crew of any given ship is usually larger than the number of people with actual lines in an episode. There are not a lot of techniques associated with this idea, but it’s an important concept to bear in mind. Not only does it make the shifting cast (based on attendance) seem more appropriate, it impacts prep and gives the GM explicitly permission to narrow the scope of what to prepare.

What this means may depend on the GM. On the practical side, it may mean not throwing a stealth mission in when all the thieves are out on spring break. On the narrative side, it may mean you have a little bit more leeway bringing in characters personal issues because you know the scope is narrower.


There is one more option that I explicitly have not mentioned here: Friendly Mechanics.

Many games have rules that make flexible scheduling easier. Often, these loosen the 1:1 relationship between character and player. This may be as lightweight was a system that allows or encourages players to play NPCs in scenes that their main character is not involved in, or it could be as structured as Ars Magica’s system of creating several different characters and then choosing who to play situationally.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this space, but I do not consider it essential for one simple reason – it’s not to everyone’s taste. I can do fixed locations, episodic play and an ensemble cast with almost any game out there, shaped to the tastes of the players of that game. But once I start changing the rules, that’s a whole other ball of wax.

It’s a ball of wax I’m happy to tackle, but it’s a topic for another time.

Tarnished Iron and Debt

Women with a glowing metal gauntlet raised and ready to kick some ass.Conversation on twitter with @robweiland and @hippywizard lead to me spending my lunch writing the house rules I would use to address that grumpiness about dracheneisen in 7th Sea.  And thus, I share. 

In first edition 7th Sea, one of the most delightful things about the Eisen was that their signature was punching evil in the face with a dracheneisen gauntlet. In 2nd edition, this has been replaced with creepy magic, and it feels like an unfair tradeoff. Dracheneisen still exists in the setting, but it’s explicitly put out of the reach of starting characters.

I don’t like this much. The easy solution is to just say it’s purchaseable as a more expensive signature item. Technically, the rules suggest that a dracheneisen item would be worth 10 points, but considering what 5 points gets you, that seems extreme. So if you want the quick fix, add the following:

NEW ADVANTAGE: Heir to Iron (5 points, Eisen Only)

You own a dracheneisen artifact, either a heavy melee weapon, a piece of armor or a panzerhand. Describe it in detail, bearing in mind that it should have a storied history.

  • It is indestructible by any normal means
  • It has all the benefits of a signature item (see the advantage of that name).
  • It glows when within 30′ of a monster
  • If brandished before a monster, monstrous abilities which cost 1 danger point cost 2. If the item leaves the scene, the benefit is lost
  • If it is a weapon, it causes one extra wound when striking a character with a Sorcery Advantage or Monster Quality.
  • If it is a piece of armor, once per scene you may spend a hero point to avoid the automatic dramatic wound from a firearm
  • If it is a Panzerhand, and you are fighting in the Eisenfaust style, it acts as both armor and weapon.

NEW BACKGROUND: Iron Heir (Eisen Only)

You are the heir to a proud tradition, embodied by the dracheneisen weapon handed down to you. You must live up to it, or die trying.

Quirk: Earn a hero Point when you opt not use your Dracheneisen artifact in a situation where it would be helpful because the foe or task is unworthy.

Advantages: Heir to Iron

Skills: Athletics, Intimidate, Scholarship, Warfare, Weaponry

However, if you want to buy into the idea that dracheneisen should be rare and is really worth 10 steps of a story, then consider the following:

NEW ADVANTAGE: Tarnished Dracheneisen (4 points, Eisen only)

Dracheneisen cannot be destroyed, but it can become tarnished. No one is entirely sure how this happens – the Eisen say that it can happen when the weapon is shamed by its wielder, but alchemists are skeptical, expecting that the process is more mundane. Whatever the explanation, it can be cleaned, but not easily. The Eisen say that only the blood of monsters can clean Dracheneisen, and that is not terribly far from he truth.

You own a dracheneisen artifact, either a heavy melee weapon, a piece of armor or a panzerhand. Describe it in detail, bearing in mind that it should have a storied history.

  • It is indestructible by any normal means
  • It has all the benefits of a signature item (see the advantage of that name).

It is possible to “unlock” the other attributes of the item through stories. There are three levels of purification, each of which requires a 2 step story (usually 1. Find a rare monster, 2. Kill the hell out of it).

  • After the first story, It glows when within 30′ of a monster
  • After the second story, If brandished before a monster, monstrous abilities which cost 1 danger point cost 2. If the item leaves the scene, the benefit is lost
  • After the third and final story, it gains a benefit based on its form:
    • If it is a weapon, it causes one extra wound when striking a character with a Sorcery Advantage or Monster Quality.
    • If it is a piece of armor, once per scene you may spend a hero point to avoid the automatic dramatic wound from a firearm
    • If it is a Panzerhand, and you are fighting in the Eisenfaust style, it acts as both armor and weapon.


Your name is a storied one, but it has been shamed. You carry an artifact that is marked by that shame. It will be made clean again. So you swear.

Quirk: Gain a hero point when you take a risk to protect your good name.

Advantages: Survivalist, Tarnished Dracheneisen

Skills: Athletics, Intimidate, Scholarship, Warfare, Weaponry


Sometimes circumstances result in a character getting an advantage that they haven’t paid for. If this is just a momentary circumstance, then all is well – fate giveth and fate taketh away. However, sometimes it’s a real change to the character that has not been “paid for” in points to story.

In those circumstances, the player has accrued a debt equal to the number of story steps they would have needed to gain the advantage in question. Debt can be “paid off” with a story equal to the size of the debt. If a character somehow accrues more than one debt, track them separately, and remove them separately (that is, if Gaston has a debt of 3 and a debt of 2, they can be removed with a 3 step story and a 2 step story. it need not be a 5 step story, though that would work too).

At the beginning of a session, when the GM collects danger points, she gains one extra danger point for every point of debt among the characters present. a

The Expected Outcome

This is one of those ideas that is simple in any context other than gaming: In most situations, when you describe something happening (“Diana Thunderstone punched the bruiser in the jaw…”), there are clear consequences that you can also describe (“…and he went down like a sack of bricks.”)

In gaming, we introduce uncertainty into this equation, so that if Diana’s player rolls higher than a 10, the guy goes down like a sack of bricks, but if she rolls less than 10, he doesn’t. We introduce different layers of complication to this (Maybe she only makes a little progress towards knocking him out, or maybe she takes some damage or whatever).

But if you peel back all that machinery, it comes back to the simple idea of an expected outcome. It’s the way things are supposed to go.

For all that this is a very simple idea, it has roots spread throughout gaming, many of which come back to the question of how we decide what is a reasonable expected outcome (and by extension, who gets to decide it). This is complicated further by the fact that we deal in realms of the imagination, which means finding any kind of shared agreement on what is reasonable can be tricky. How tall is a giant? How much weight can a pegasus carry? Can painting a vampire protect them from the sun? The potential array of questions is endless, and while it is possible to answer some of them, we end up having to turn to other tricks to deal with them.

The most common trick is, of course, to fold these things into a system, so the system provides the answer. Often the system (usually including some amount of randomization) fills the gap of all the things we don’t know to allow us to come to an agreed upon answer. Analyzing every single detail of skill and position makes it very cumbersome to determine if Khadgar hits the orc, so we take that uncertainty and throw it in a box labeled “To hit roll”, and now we have an answer. Or, rather, we have reduced it to a narrow range of expected outcomes, and given ourselves the tools to select between them.

But even an example that simple still depends on a broader idea of an expected outcome. There are the “obvious” assumptions – Khadgar needs to be within reach of the Troll, he has to have his sword, he needs to not be incapacitated and so on. System addresses many of these, but they are sufficiently obvious that there is rarely much need to look anything up or otherwise step out of the action. More tenuous are things situational events – what if the orc is distracted? What if it’s knocked on its ass?

System can address these, and a well constructed system (like 5e) offers tools (like advantage & disadvantage) to quickly systematize edge cases. However, this is one of those areas where GM skill and experience plays a strong role in making the right ruling and continuing to move on. The most obvious example in almost any system is the question of when to roll the dice. I mention this casually, but the decision of when to roll and when not to roll is incredibly powerful and usually falls explicitly into the GM’s hands.

Now, this idea of an expected outcome tends to hover over any situation in play. If there are greatly divergent expectations at the table, that creates a problem. If there’s great divergence between the expectations of the players/GM and the system, that can be a deal breaker (in fact, many game designs begin from this disconnect, looking to deliver an outcome closer to their expectations).

It is super interesting to look at PBTA in this regard – it has a weird relationship with expected outcomes (as it does with difficulty), and there’s a case that you might be better off going in without expected outcomes. At the other end of the spectrum, diceless games lean very heavily on expected outcomes, usually largely dependent on the GM’s sensibilities.

To my mind, this reveals something kind of critical about GM power. When you talk about giving GM power, I think people imagine very different things, often involving dropping elephants from the sky. It gets confused all the further when you have SUPER STRICT limitation on the GM except they’re still the owner of the entire fictional world – not sure what problem that solves.

But for me, when I say I want the GM to have a lot of power – more than the designer – I am speaking directly to expected outcomes. I think that system is a poor substitute for good judgement in deciding what outcomes(or range of outcomes) would most satisfy that table at that moment, and it seems silly to not acknowledge that authority. It’s not about purple beams from the sky, it’s about responsiveness. It’s about the moment of play.

Or at least that’s the expected outcome.

2d6 and 3 out of 5

On a very primal level, one of my favorite things about the various Powered by the Apocalypse games is that they use 2d6 for resolution. It’s just about the simplest possible way to generate a curve, using the most ubiquitously available dice. The math is easy and fast. It uses an even number of dice, which may seem like a small thing, but is important when you want to buy cool dice (you don’t want to know how much I paid for the metal set I picked up at Gencon).

But PBTA was far from the first 2d6 system, and and I can’t think of another such system that has been so sticky. A big part of that is, I think, that PBTA has driven forth a very concrete means of reading the dice that only generates 3 outcomes1 with very little player training. Once the player has internalized that 7-9 is the middle result, they can easily infer whether they’be done better or worse.

There’s some interesting knock-on effects to this. First, it rewards the simplicity of the dice. It would be easy to produce a more nuanced curve with more or different dice, but that could impede the ease of learning that core number. It would also introduce a temptation to get fiddle, which would also detract from the simplicity.

It also allows for the designer to play GM in a very concrete way. The design of a move is a decision bout how an activity should look – that’s one of its big strengths. It’s apparently simple design actually conceals something a little more complicated. I’ve talked about this before, but the most direct way this is expressed is the range of outcomes. Consider:

10+ Success with Benefit
7-9 Success
6- Complication


10+ Success
7-9 Success with Complication
6- Problem


10+ Success with Complication
7-9 Not Quite Failure
6- Ha ha ha ha ha

As you look through PBTA material, you can find all three of these patterns (and others) reflecting the designer’s take on that particular sort of action in the context of the genre. Sometimes this is applied with grace and nuance, sometimes it’s shotgunned across things as an expression of the designer’s taste. Which is fine – PBTA is an opinionated game system, so this is a feature.

But, of course, it makes me go hmm.

If one wanted to start from the core idea (a simply expressed narrow range of outcomes) it would probably be possible to create an ur-list of maybe 5 outcomes. You could theoretically produce three sets of moves out of it (high, medium, low) out of that set. So, suppose the list is:

  • movespectrumSuccess with Added benefit
  • Success
  • Success at a cost
  • Mitigated Failure/Complications
  • Disaster

So a “nice” move would be

10+ Success with Added benefit
7-9 Success
6- Success at a cost


And an average move would be

10+ Success
7-9 Success at a cost
6- Mitigated Failure/Complications

while an “unkind” move would be

10+ Success at a cost
7-9 Mitigated Failure/Complications
6- Disaster


Such an approach would not need to replace any existing moves so much as simply provide a set of guidelines for whipping up moves on the fly. And that works on paper, but it has one big drawback – it is effectively a back donor for inserting difficulty into PBTA and that is probably a very bad thing indeed.

So I’m not so sure there’s much use for this idea in the context of PBTA as anything but a shiny bauble. However, as an indicator for how to maybe steal a chunk of PBTA tech and use it elsewhere, this may prove a very interesting starting point.

  1. Yes, there are ultra-positive results in some builds, but they are something of a sidebar. ↩︎

Signifier Stats

A lot of games have a category of stats (often called something else) which may have some mechanical effect, but are most critical as signifiers of player intent. I’m calling them signifier stats because I need to call them something, because I’ve found myself thinking about them a bit.

The most famous and obvious example of a signifier stat is alignment in D&D. It’s not a perfect communicator, of course, but it does a decent job of conveying the kind of play that the player is looking forward to. Choosing Lawful Good is not (usually) an indicator of an interesting a shady political play or bloodthirsty mayhem. It’s incomplete – sometimes an alignment is chosen for contrast (the one honest man among thieves, or the secret betrayer) or because the player has seized upon a particular nuance (The paladin who is super lawful, but who does not recognize the current ruling power as legitimate, or any number of doomed heroes). But in any case, alignment is n obvious part of the communication, and when your whole playgroup chooses Chaotic Good, they’re telling you something.

A less famous but even more clear cut example is Good and Bad Stuff from the Amber Diceless RPG (and its successor, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow). Amber characters are bought with 100 points. Unspent points translate into “good stuff”, and you can overspend a little an pay it off by taking a few points of “bad stuff” . Effectively, if you spend 105 points on stats and powers, you have 5 points of bad stuff. If you spend 95 points, you have 5 good stuff.

Because Amber is a diceless system, “stuff” is where a lot of things dictated by luck come into play. Lots of good stuff? Things go your way. Bad stuff? It can feel like the universe has painted a target on your back. This was not entirely reliable – for many GM’s good stuff merely meant terrible things only happened frequently rather than constantly – but it established a spread of expectations at the table.

When the game first came out, I thought of this as a balance mechanic. It was tied into points, wasn’t it? Clearly, the point was to penalize players who overspend and reward those who didn’t. But in time I cam to realize it was and of the reverse – players taking bad stuff were agreeing to make the GM’s life easier and were getting rewarded for it. Players buying Good Stuff were buying a degree of protection, and paying for that1.

Now, collecting player intent before play starts is one of those things that it’s just worth doing. There’s no substitute for talking with your players about expectations before starting play. But unless you are playing a very thematically constrained game, that conversation will probably reveal a spectrum of possibilities that do not necessarily indicate where each player wants to go. Even if everyone agrees they want swashbuckling high adventure, having an explicit indicator of the kind of play each player is going for within that space can be a super useful idea.

Obviously, this purpose can also be served by direct hooks on the sheet – things like backgrounds or aspects – but those may not necessarily answer the same questions. Signifier stats occupy a space between the tone of the game as a whole and the specific character hooks, and used properly, they offer a bridge between the two.

To illustrate using an amber example, let’s say we have agreed on a nasty, political-and-fisticuffs game of Amber. I’ve made my character and bought a connection to my parent, one of the princes or princesses of Amber.

If I am playing a Good Stuff character, my relationship with my parent is probably pretty healthy. They’re quite possibly still a jerk, and they may yank me around of army own good, but I know they have my back. If I buy more allies over time, they’ll be reasonably solid – betrayal is a risk, but it’s the exception.

If I’m playing a Bad Stuff character, my parent may very well consider me one more playing piece. I benefit some because I’m a useful pawn, but we both know this is a relationship of expedience. If I gain allies, I must constantly watch my back, since I am in a nest of vipers. The occasional person I feel I can trust is a treasure (and a liability)

I could explicitly articulate these things with each connection and with each relationship, but with a signifier stat, I don’t need to. That saves hassle, yes, but it also means that players who are uncomfortable explicitly seizing the narrative can still express a preference. That’s some pretty useful mojo.

  1. But, critically, the game never said this was the case. Many players picked their Good and Bad stuff rating for entirely non-mechanical reasons because of the type of character the played ↩︎

The Size of Aspects

I’ve remarked on a few occasions that an essential decision in Fate is how big aspects are. That is, should aspects be the big, important signifiers of what really matters, or should they be more of a language to express the moment in mechanical terms.

As Fate has evolved, it has gone more down the second path, and there are a lot of benefits to that. It is fairly easy to turn any scene into a handful of aspects, and by extension have the baseline mechanical attributes you need to run the scene. That’s a useful tool.

But it’s important to note that plenty of other system can do it. If I’m doing a Risus or WaRP variant, I can assign d6 pools to any arbitrary thing you can think of (On Fire 3d, Deep Shadows 2d). In Cortex Plus I can do similar things with a die value (on Fire d8, Deep Shadows d6). If the game has reasonably flexible descriptive mechanics, it’s pretty doable.

In this context, the main feature of Fate is that it’s simple. In each of the examples above, a little bit of thought needs to be given to assigning a rating. Is this a 3d6 fire, or a 4d fire? What’s the difference? Sometimes that can be easy to intuit (especially if you know the system very well) but it’s still an extra step. In Fate, it is simple On Fire or it’s not.

Obviously that’s double edged. There are times when you might want granularity, but that is the nature of tradeoffs. The right answer is the one you need right this minute.