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How I Choose Aspects

Fred ran a one shot Star Wars game the other night night, using a Fate hack he’s been working on.  We had a ton of fun as a gang scoundrels and rogues one a mission for Maz around the time of the current films.  I’m not a Fate player that often, and I don’t get to play with Fred nearly enough, so it was a win across the board.  And, of course, it has me thinking about a couple of things, some of which may bubble up here, but one kind of struck me.

I’d given Fred a rough sketch for my character, and I’d thought about him some, but at the start of play I only had provided my high concept and trouble aspects.   This is not much of a problem – coming up with aspects on the fly is something I’m comfortable with – but it made me think a bit about how I do it, and I figured I’d share here in case it’s of any use to anyone.

Photograph of tented index cards showing the character aspects discussed in the body of the article.

My first aspect is my go to. It’s omething that so clearly reflects what my character is that I’ll be able to use it almost any time. This is usually the high concept, and frequently is some manner of broad role. In last night’s game it was Grumpy Old Soldier (Sol was his name) and it served the purpose well. It’s easy to express, and it was a fallback aspect on almost any soldiery situation, which was most of them for me.

#2 is my hook for the GM. It is something that I feel like if the GM knows she’ll have an easier time planning scenes or putting hooks in scenes for me. This is *probably* my trouble, but it might not be because I also have #3. Ideally I want the “if this, then that” to be implicit in the aspect, so the GM knows full well that if they lay down *this* then I will *that*. In this case it was Doesn’t want to care, but ends up caring.  Sharp eyes will notice that is different than the card (which says Does Not Care About You) because that was the public facing side – the reverse simply said “This is a lie”.

#3 is my Fate Point generator. This aspect is more or less carte Blanche for the GM to complicate a scene, and the specifics of the aspect communicate the *flavor* of the complications. It can be generalized (last night I had Worst. Fucking. Timing) if you have a flavor in mind, but another great way to set this up is as a consequence for past actions. One of the other players last night had an aspect that was effectively (“I stole a lot of money and a lot of people are mad”) which proved a font of complications.

#4 is what I consider the contextualizer. At this point I have enough of a sense of the character to be able to think “if I described the character to someone, what part of their story am I not telling here?” Then add an aspect to reflect that. Put another way, this is the “backstory” aspect, and it usually complements and expands on (or otherwise relates to) the high concept.  For me it was Imperial Elite, Republic Trash – he’d come from an imperial (formerly republic) military family and was fresh to the service when the Empire fell.  There’s a longer story, of course, but I don’t need to tell it all at once now that I have an anchor point for it.

#5 s the wild card. No guidance here, this is the slot to keep flexible (and maybe even fill in on the fly if your GM goes for it). I often look at this as my slot to see what the *table* needs, and if I can use it to connect to other players, that’s perfect. If the game is a one shot, then it might just duplicate another category. If it’s a campaign, then it might be something that reflects a long term goal.  In this case it was a bit of history based on a prompt Fred gave (“What’s a battle that sticks with you”), so I went with The Bloody Streets of Corsucant, since he’d been there and on the imperial side when the empire fall, and it wasn’t all singing ewoks.

That’s my fast and loose approach.  I should note, I rarely sit down and run through the list when I make aspects.  Rather, the first couple aspects often suggest themselves naturally, but then I end up thinking about #4 and #5 or so. At that point I do a quick mental inventory to see if I’ve hit all these notes.  Do I have a generator?  Have I anchored my backstory?   That is when these become useful prompts.

Final Caveat – this is just an approach to this. I’m not suggesting it’s optimal, it’s just a tool that might see some use.  Use it, abuse it or discard it, but hopefully, it’s handy for at least some folks.

Persona and Mage

A while back, on the strength of great reviews, a delightful trailer and the promised of capers, I picked up an played Persona 5 on the PS4 (my primary video game console) and I loved it. Loved it loved it loved it. It is amazing how many of my buttons it hit. It had capers and style, but it also had time management and fun characters and entertaining dungeon crawls and great pacing and and and…

So I liked it. I liked it enough that I borrowed a copy of Persona 4 from a friend, and ended up enjoying it enough that I bought my own player. I also may have watched all the available anime.

I liked that enough that I dusted off my PS3 to install the PS2 emulated version of Persona 31 and despite the fact that it was a little bit of a pain in the ass (and the age of the game was showing) I enjoyed the hell out of that.

I am unlikely to go back much further. The technical limitations of the older games and the hoops I need to jump through to get them playing outstrip the benefits of just watching them on YouTube. I’m ok with that – these are now thoroughly embedded in my personal canon.

Obviously, I’ve put some thought into mapping them to RPGs. It would not be hard to capture their gameplay structurally by starting from Blades in the Dark – crew-centric, mission based play is right in the sweet spot, and it would just need tools for social links and dungeon crawling, which would not be a huge lift.

But despite that, the game that I have found myself thinking about when I get to the end of each of these is Mage: the Ascension.

Now, Mage is a fascinating game which is hard to talk about because by it’s nature, everyone who played mage played a different version of the game. Because the nature of the game was about the manipulation of subjective reality and the rules were designed to support anything, the game tended to be about whatever slice of that was most exciting to a particular group.2

For all that, the most fascinating part of Mage to me was the part it probably did least well.

So, in Mage, there’s an underlying, true reality which mages can understand and manipulate, and it’s represented by the various “spheres” (like death, life, mind, entropy etc.) that make up the building blocks of an experienced universe and which are also the mechanical components that drive the magic system.

But, fiction-wise, you don’t just jump to that understanding. That’s the underlying truth, but there are numerous magical traditions that lead to power, but are incomplete in their understanding. On paper, the arc of a mage in Mage is to discover power through, say, Hermetic Secrets, and use that power for a while before eventually reaching an understanding of the meta-truth behind everything (and then, with subsequent splats, to discover the meta-meta-truth, but that’s less interesting to me).

The problem, and I use the term loosely, was that the meta-truth was laid out very clearly to players and was essential to the workings of the system, so there was very little incentive to spend any time in that space of incomplete understanding excepting any point where the mechanics demanded it.3

To unpack a little, the Mage sphere system could be used to mechanically model almost any in-fiction effect. This was awesome, no question. And it meant if you started from fiction that you wanted to shoot a lightning bolt from your hand, you could determine that that was a Forces:3 effect, and you had all the mechanics you needed, and if you had Forces:3 on your sheet. And that’s great, but on your sheet you had “Forces:3” so it was easier (and more beneficial) to think in terms of “what can I do with my 3 dots of forces?”

None of these things were bad, but they pushed Mage into the meta game pretty fast unless you forcibly dragged it back. Whether that’s a bug or feature depended what you were shooting for.

Which brings us back to Persona. In each Persona game, it is revealed that there is a deeper layer of reality that most people cannot perceive, but which contains both power and threats which impact the real world and can be used by some handful of beings who have the awareness. It also suggests that there’s a deeper layer still, which the protagonist accesses, and the arc of the protagonists journey (which is the journey through the Major Arcana) involves a lot of monster fights, but also represents an arc that ends in deeper understanding of the true nature of the world.4

This delights me to no end, and is a big part of the reason that when I finish a Persona game, I kind of feel like I’ve just finished the best session 0 of a Mage game that I could possibly imagine.

  1. For the nerds who know enough to ask: I played Persona 4 Golden and Personal 3 FES. On 3, I completed The Journey, but I admit I just watched a YouTube of The Answer because there’s a reason I don’t play Dark Souls. ↩︎
  2. In contrast, Mage: The Awakening is much more about the things Mage said it was about, which is exactly why it was not Mage in many people’s eyes, so make of it what you will. I note, I really liked Awakening a lot, but it’s a different beast.
    ↩︎
  3. Mage 2e did a lot of things which, I think, had the intent of making this intermediate step more prominent, but at that point the genie was out of the bottle, so it felt punitive. Curiously, I would also argue that this is part of what made Technocracy stuff more playable because the Technocracy are more strictly tied to their model of the universe, because that’s rather the point. ↩︎
  4. This is more obvious in 4 and 5 – hell, 5 ends with with protagonist looking directly at the player. 3 is thematically similar but, of course, has a somewhat different arc. ↩︎

Selling Failure

Poker ChipsI’ve been running games a little bit for my 9 year old son lately, and it is forcing me to look more closely at a lot of my ideas around failure in play.  I am absolutely a believer in using failure as a tool to move things forward, and that well handled failure can make a game much more satisfying for everyone involved.

Then I tried to explain that to a 9 year old boy.

He gets the idea in theory, but in practice, he is super loss averse.  This is a challenge if we want to use any system that incorporates failure usefully, and that’s what’s gotten me thinking about a lot of things.

One of them was whether I could get him to buy into failure as an option.  I had a fruitful conversation about this on Twitter, and Morgan Ellis got me thinking about the utility of rewards for failure being good enough to make it intrinsically appealing.   Thinking that through led to a very simple system as follows.

  • Players starts with N (say, 10) white chips and 1 black chip.
  • GM has a supply of white, red and blue chips
  • When a player wants to make a declaration that something is true, it costs a chip.  White for small things, red for larger things, blue for big deals.
  • When a player faces a challenge (its own topic, roll with it), the GM lays out a poker chip.
    • Chip is white, red or blue, representing increasing degrees of significance
    • To proceed, player must also lay down a chip.  That chip is spent(lost).
    • Black chip is a concession. It always loses, but returns to the player.
    • If the player matches or exceed’s the GM’s chip, they win (whatever that means)
    • If the player fails, they gain the GM’s chip

There’s room for a lot more wrapped around this – specific mechanical things that red & blue chips can do, other ways to earn white chips and so on, but at its heart this is a failure engine, since failure is the only way to get red and blue chips, which are powerful and useful.  I’m curious how my son will react to it.

My fear (and my wife’s expectation) is that the kid won’t like it.  This would work great for players who have already bought into failure as awesome, but this isn’t going to sell it.  There’s a decent chance she’s right, but the good news is that it’s going to be very easy to test.

Harm in Blades in the Dark

One of the things I’ve stumbled with a little in Blades in the Dark is that injuries are not a lot of fun. I get that it’s necessary for them to feel like they hurt for the game to feel gritty, but the fact that recovery is so slow is a real hindrance on play, specifically because it burns so many downtime actions. Now, I’m not sure how this is at other tables, but my players (and I) love our downtime actions. They are sweet, sweet candy. So the penalty to them seems onerous.

This has also made me – as a GM – more hesitant to inflict harm as a consequence because I knew it was not a fun option. That’s not a great place to be.

Thankfully, a conversation on Google Plus got me thinking about becoming more flexible in removing harm, and in a subsequent session, our Cutter got gassed and took a severe consequence, but it cleared up once he had time to walk it off. This felt SO much more natural and comfortable that I realized I needed to really rethink how I used harm in blades.

One thing that clearly jumped out is that by becoming more liberal in how harm gets cleared, I can also be more flexible in my definition of harm. Harm has always been a fuzzy thing, but I have never gone fully narrative with it. That is, because the way to clear harm was medical treatment, I was only comfortable using harm for things that could be cleared with medical treatment.

But if you adopt a flexible stance on harm removal, that also allows for a flexible stance on what constitutes harm. Emotional trauma? Reputation? Getting covered from head to toe in goat crap? If I treat all these things as Harm then I have a whole slew of new tools in my toolbox, and since the mechanical impacts of harm generalize well, they slot in seamlessly.

As a bonus, this underscores the fact that being taken out by harm does not kill a character. Now, when they are taken out by harm, it does not need to be an act of death defiance. It could just as easily be that it all became too much, or that they needed to go underground. I like this a lot.

And the funny thing is that while I got into this because I wanted the option to have more easily-clearable harm, this flexibility does not oblige me to that. Non-physical harm may require just as much (or more) effort to clear than regular harm. The difference is that for social and emotional harm, those means will often be more interesting than visiting the doctor. Social harm in particular can obviously be mapped to clocks, but it can also be addressed with a score. I kind of love that.

Now, I’m am totally good simply knowing this, but if you need some guidelines to mechanize this a bit, then let’s lean into the BitD ethos and say it’s more than one thing. 🙂

Harm Duration Guidelines

  • Harm has Severity and Duration, both from 1-4
  • Severity is the current level of harm. exactly as described in the rules.
  • Duration reflects how hard it is to clear/reduce
    • 1 (Momentary): Can be cleared with an easy action that requires no dice, like cleaning up, grabbing a meal or otherwise taking the time to clear it.
    • 2 (Temporary): Can be cleared with a single appropriate downtime action, or as a result of a more difficult roll or time intensive activity (like getting a full night’s sleep).
    • 3 (Persistent): Can be reduced with a single appropriate downtime action. This is the current default model, with the “appropriate action” being the medical roll. Other actions may require smaller or larger clocks, or no clock at all.
    • 4 (Lingering): Cannot be easily reduced or cleared. Will usually require some sort of action to determine how to clear it, or to remove the thing that’s keeping it from being cleared.
  • While the default Duration in Blades is 3, it can obviously be slid up and down as a result of the fiction. The GM should communicate duration along with severity when informing players of consequence.
  • The expectation is that duration should flow very logically form the fiction. For example, getting drunk would be temporary harm, of a severity that rather depends on how drunk.
  • The expectation is that duration also gives the GM a freer hand with severity, since there are now two ways to show how serious something is. Low severity but high duration tells a different story than high severity and low duration.
  • What harm may be used to reflect is entirely up to the GM

Gatekeeping?

Saw a super jerkish comment about Magic: the Gathering today (that “legit” players buy singles, not boosters) and it was a reminder that while I love playing Magic with friends and family, I really kind of hate dealing with it at large.

I mentioned this, and someone referred to it as “Gatekeeping” and I was left chewing on that.  On one hands, it’s kind of not, because this guy’s opinion does not keep me from buying boosters and playing like I want.   But on the other hand, he really *does* keep me out of this greater playspace (if only by showing it to be a place I don’t want to be).

 

(The behavior *was* absolutely gatekeeping in that he had appointed himself an arbiter of what “real” players are, but that’s more of a garden variety asshole thing, so I’m not really accounting for it.)

Anyway, I’m just wondering at the language of gatekeeping – One of the things that muddles conversation about the term is the implicit idea that that  gatekeeper has power to enforce the gate closure.  A lot of people don’t consider themselves gatekeepers because they don’t have power, or because there are other ways around their objections.  And maybe that’s true, but they’re still doing what this guy does: broadcasting a signal that indicates that this is not the place for you.  It has no *force* behind it, but the message itself conveys that this is the kind of place that’s *ok* with that message.

I dunno. Maybe we need another term for it, just so assholes can’t weasel out.  Can anyone suggest anything punchy?

Pacing Mechanisms

Black and White Stopwatch IconLet’s talk about pacing.

If you’re only vaguely familiar with the term, it means controlling how fast things go. While we’re talking about it in terms of games here, it’s also critically important in fiction, and the ways it’s important in fiction are often useful in games, so we’ll be talking a bit about both.

The purpose of pacing is to make sure that things take the right amount of time. This is a bit ephemeral, but in broadest strokes this means that things which are more important take more time, but they don’t take so much time that they become boring. There’s a lot of nuance in application – sometimes you can tweak pacing for specific effects – but that’s the heart of it.

All good so far, but we’ve now got two things to unpack: How long things take, and what’s important. Both of those are simple enough that they seem like things we can intuit, and often we can, but there’s utility to be had in drilling into them a bit.

Importance is an interesting one. In other media, importance is often tied directly to the story and how important a given scene is. A travel scene might take a few sentences of moments onscreen, but a tearful confrontation between ex-lovers turned rivals is going to eat up a lot of bandwidth because it’s important to the author (and hopefully the audience).

RPGs do not have quite that kind of clarity – the GM’s judgement (or opinion) may weight some scenes as more or less important than others, but that is an unreliable metric. In fact, a lot of bad GM stories are a result of the GM’s ideas of what’s important being out of whack with the players’ sense.

Instead, RPGs offer a different sort of clarity – attention. The things which the players (GM included) are most interested in are the most important. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Player attention is mercurial and unpredictable, and while the GM may use the tools at her disposal to try to tilt and channel it, she can neither predict nor control it.

RPGs also offer more levels of engagement than those offered to a passive audience. This means that while time is one factor in pacing, so is action.

And this is where we hit upon two overlapping but slightly separate ideas.

Stories have the idea of a beat as a general term for a moment when something happens. A fight might happen on an action beat. Something funny might happen on a comedy beat. A conversation might happen on a dialog beat and so on.

A beat does take a fixed amount of time – it could literally be a moment, or it might be an entire scene. That flexibility makes them a good way to sort of look over a story and spot the beats, and see if they’re skewing a certain way (and if you maybe want to break that pattern).

Games have beats too, and the idea is useful in that context, but games also have rolls. Exactly what a roll means varies from game to game, but there is a common idea that a player describes a particular type of action, dice are rolled, and mechanics are engaged that determine what direction the description goes in. That is to say, the roll equates to action.

The relationship between rolls and beats is interesting. One thing that happens a lot once a designer learns about beats, they have a moment of “what if every beat was a roll?” because that seems very tidy.

It does not work for crap, but it’s a neat thought.

But it’s an interesting failure, because if you try it, you discover that there are plenty of beats where the dice shouldn’t be rolled, and that reveals something important and relevant – calling for a dice roll is a pacing decision. It explicitly says that more attention (and often more time) is going to be paid to this thing.

This is pretty simple for systems that have big rolls, ones where a LOT gets resolves in a single pass. But for other systems, where rolls may be pretty granular, importance is reflected by the number of rolls. If you look to D&D, it’s not hard to see how the things that call for the most rolls are also the default play actions.

But as with time, action is not open ended. Spending too much time on a scene starts to drain its importance, and similarly, spending too many actions on a scene can turn it into a grind (at least in part because that will kill a lot of time too).

Which is where we come to gaming’s first great pacing mechanic1 – the hit point. We like to imagine hit points as a proxy for health, luck or robustness, but in purely practical terms, hit points are a control on how long a fight should last. Yes, there are variables that play into this like hit chances, crits and so on, but it’s still a rough metric for fight duration as measured in the number of rolls in a fight.2

And that brings us back to tracks. Tracks, like any mechanic that controls the number of rolls (or other points of engagement) something is going to take, is a pacing mechanism.

This seems like a lot of trouble to slap a label on the mechanic, so how does that actually help anything?

Well, here’s the thing. I mentioned that RPG’s have rolls available as a measure of attention, but what I did not mention is that they’re often a fairly clunky tool. Even if the fiction changes, in most (not all3) systems, the act of rolling is very repetitive, and as a result, the scope of the roll becomes constrained with habit.

That is not always a bad thing. Just as you would not want a movie resolved in 30 seconds, you probably don’t want an adventure resolved in one roll. Tracks (and similar) let you take an idea of something that should exist in your game but which is out-of-sync with your dice pacing, and integrate it smoothly into play. That sounds very abstract, but if you think a little bit about things you don’t want resolved in one roll (particularly things that stop play, like abrupt success/failure or character death) you should be able to find concrete examples with ease.

Now, pacing is not the only reason you’d want to use tracks/wheels/clocks/whatever. But if you are using them, it’s important to realize that you are making a pacing decision – several pacing decisions usually – and being mindful of that will help improve the flow of play.

  1. Possibly second after the idea of taking turns. ↩︎
  2. 4e D&D illustrated this fantastically with it’s creature roles. ↩︎
  3. One thing almost no systems let you do is have different sizes of roll. The only good example I have is the brilliant game, The Shadow of Yesterday, which resolves combat with a single roll, unless you want to go into blow-by-blow combat. That allows the pacing to change up within the scope of play (and addresses the fact that most games have different pacing requirements for rolls in and out of combat). It’s brilliant, and it makes me sad that more games haven’t used it. ↩︎

 

Fate Tracks

Anyone familiar with the Second Edition of Fate knows that we made heavy use of challenge tracks. They were useful for all kinds of things, from running debates to casting spells to playing chess (the chess example is one of my favorites to date). A challenge track was a set of boxes, often with difficulties at different levels, and triggers at various points along the way. They provided a tool for tracking the results of actions that could not reasonably be accomplished in a single roll.

The stress tracks that exist in Fate Core are the only remnant of this once-ubiquitous tech. The reason is simple – it was a little bit too fiddly for what it was trying to accomplish, so it got dropped in favor of smoother resolution. There’s some regret to that, sure, but it was the right direction at the time.

That was my general take on this until a few months ago when I read Blades in the Dark and was delighted by John’s approach to clocks because it specifically solved a lot of the complexity problems that we had with challenge tracks, and did so with style and grace. And as is my wont with such things, I am now going to mug BitD in a dark alley and go through its pockets for change.

Before I begin, a couple caveats.

  1. Blades is brilliant. Go read it. I am offering only a pale shadow of the delight it offers.
  2. I am going to talk about tracks rather than clocked for my own use, but honestly, if you want to just use clocks because circles and pie wedges are awesome (they are) then you should absolutely do that.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about Tracks.

A track is a set of boxes (usually – more on that in a bit) used to measure progress towards a goal. It’s pretty basic – some things cause boxes to be checked off, and when the final box is filled in, the thing happens. Simple as that!

So, for example, if you have a crew of adventurer’s sneaking into a guarded manor, you might create a track for the alertness level of the guards. As play proceeds, loud actions (like fights) or other misadventures might check off boxes, and when the last box is checked, the alarm is sounded, and the situation goes from bad to worse.

Easy enough, but the example reveals a few key question about tracks, and point us to the things that we, as GMs, want to know about any track we create1.

To come up with a track, you need to know:

  • What completion will trigger
  • What sort of things will cause the track to progress
  • How many boxes the track will have

Now, broken down into a list, that may seem a little fiddly, but the actual flow is quite organic.

Trigger

This is largely simple, but with a little bit of nuance – it’s what’s going to happen when the track fills up. But, critically, it’s not necessary everything that’s going to happen. That is, the consequences can be part of the track, but often the track is about a triggering event, with the consequences to be inferred. Sometimes they’re very obvious, in the case of “Manor House Alertness”, but sometimes they’re an open ended statement like, like “Alfonzo Discovers the Truth”.

Progress

It’s easy to get spun up on this if you think about it too strictly and start laying down what sort of skills and actions drive these things. That sort of structure makes sense when the purpose of the track is to represent a specific task or challenge – for example, if you’ve got a track going for finding the location of a hidden artifact, then each successful research scene (or roll, or session, depending2) might tick off a box.

For tracks that are less direct – especially ones that represent risks – there are a lot more ways for things to progress. Partly this is a function of GM taste and style, but also it’s a function of offscreen narrative. This could probably be a topic entirely of its own, but generally speaking, player failures, success at cost and concessions are all opportunities to advance a track.

Duration

A short track communicates imminence, a longer track gives some breathing room. Both are appropriate and there’s no hard or fast rule around length, but there are a few tips.

Assume that 4-6 steps is the “default” number, and shape from there. That means that if you drop a 2 step track on your players, you are declaring that it’s more or less a bomb with a lit fuse3. If, on the other hand, there are 8 or more, then players are unlikely to respond immediately, but it’s going to loom over them over time.

The instinct is that nastier consequences and greater difficulties have longer tracks, and that is true to an extent, but it’s not the whole of the picture. Short tracks with high consequences make great threats and they’re easy to manage. Long tracks for their own sake are more of a problem – making a track long for its own sake runs the risk of turning it into a grind. Since the length of the track is (roughly) the number of times the issue needs to be engaged, feel free to shorten tracks to speed up pacing.

That is, for example, if something is very hard to research there’s a temptation to make the track for resolving it very long. If the research is something happening alongside other play, then awesome. But if it just means “Ugh, another research scene?”, that track is too long.


So, this is just a starter with the idea.  There’s still a lot to unpack, but I wanted to start with the basics of what a track is, so we can start delving into all the things you can do with them

 

  1. We’ll get into when and how we create them later. For the moment, let’s just focus on how they work. ↩︎
  2. This point probably needs its own post at some point, but here’s a general rule of thumb – if a track is immediate (that is, it can be resolved in a scene or two) then make sure it needs to be a track, and if so, then tick up once per roll. If it’s ambient – something that might matter for the duration of a session (like alert level) or a problem that’s going to come to head in a short arc, then it’s appropriate to tick it up at the end of a scene. For BIG issues, the kind that shape the campaign and the setting, a tick at the end of a session is more appropriate.You can absolutely note scale on the tracks if you feel like it’s necessary, but I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The level of granularity will probably be reasonably intuitive, and sometimes the rules will need to be broken (such as a fight killing a prominent NPC immediately ticking up the “political instability” track). These tiers of granularity are guidelines, albeit fairly robust ones.

    One other potential input is downtime – actions taken between sessions of play. It’s something to bear in mind, but that will definitely need to be its own post at some point.

  3. On some level, I am tempted to just upend the nomenclature and call these fuses instead of tracks. It’s nicely visceral. Certainly not ruling it out. ↩︎

To Be a Better GM, Play This Game

10 node diagram with connecting lines

Adapted from the HipBone games board.

So, there’s an idea from Herman Hesse’s Magister Lundi of “The Glass Bead Game” which is sort of a game played out in the similarities between different and complicated things. I was introduced to the idea of it back in the the days of the mostly text World Wide Web by Hipbone Games (whose website still exists!). It was an interesting evolution of other association games I’d played, and I’d really stuck with me. I’ve written before about the glass bead game itself and some tricks for using it when GMing, but today I want to talk about its advantages in a more abstract fashion.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about tactical GMing. Game books are full of great general advice, and there’s a lot of wisdom to learn from out there, but when I think about how that advice connects to the moment-to-moment decisions I make at the table, it can sometimes be hard to really explain how it works. So I started thinking about some of the games I’ve run most recently in really granular terms, and I hit upon a particular pattern.

For me, the single most useful skill for GMing flexibly and responsibly is the ability to look at a thing and immediately see the number of other things it might be.

Now, I’m sure that for some of you that sentence made sense, and you can probably skip the next little bit. But if that sounded like gibberish, let me unpack a little bit.

As an example, let’s use Superman. He’s pretty well known, so he’s a pretty easy touchpoint. Let’s say I want to use Superman in my game or story or whatever. I can do that, sure, but what if I take a moment to think about all the things Superman is:

  • An alien
  • An icon of Truth, Justice and the American Way
  • Power incarnate
  • Mild mannered reported Clark Kent
  • Nemesis of Lex Luthor
  • Impossible – no one can be that good
  • Inspiring – example of how power can be used
  • The creation of Jewish Artists

I could go on for quite some time – Superman is an incredibly rich subject, enough so that I’m confident that I missed some of your favorites.

Now, this is an interesting curiosity, and is maybe a slightly useful exercise in helping me think about how I use Superman in my game, but in isolation, this is not that helpful. But now here’s a thought exercise: Do the same thing for Batman. It should be easy, he’s just as iconic. You don’t even need to write them down, just hold a couple of truths about Batman in your head while you look at that Superman list again – do any of the items on your Batman list resonate1 with anything on the Superman list? Maybe with some combinations? One classic examples, of course, is that Batman has no powers, so any the he conflicts with Superman (Power Incarnate), that difference is cast into sharp relief. Other possible resonances might be between their beliefs, or perhaps even between their respective civilian guises!

This is, I admit, a slightly mechanical exercise. For a GM or writer who already knows Batman or Superman well, there’s no need to articulate the list because they have already internalized it, and as soon as you say “Batman and Superman”, they’re mentally looking for those points of connection. In a perfect world, we’d all have a similar level of understanding of every idea we consider, but it’s not a perfect world.

And that is where the glass bead game comes in. As a game, it is a means to exercise that muscle of seeing all the versions of a thing and how those connect to the versions of other things. As a GM, that is a muscle that you want to exercise and get strong because in actual play you are bombarded with a constant series of things that make up the game you are running. As with Batman and Superman, if you can see the constellation of ideas that make those things rich, then you can use that to connect to other things and you will discover that you are no longer reliant on ideas, because you have an excess of conclusions.

That probably sounds like hyperbole, but I’m 100% sincere. Once you get used to seeing the connections between elements, you stop feeling like you need to create ideas, and instead they become something that you discover. That is a distinction that matters a lot when mental energy is at a premium – it takes a lot more juice to go “Ok, I need a good plot for lord Pembleton, let’s think of something” than “Of course, Lord Pembleton is working with the Blood Crows!”. That “of course” has a feeling that you will come to appreciate, because it usually is accompanied by a crowd of “Oh, and also!”s because it’s all so logical.

This is probably a less magical view of creativity than is often put forward for GMs. Saying that there’s a mechanical exercise (playing the glass bead game) which can improve a technical skill (drawing connections and inferences between disconnected nodes) and that leads to better creativity in play is antithetical to some views of the universe, and if that’s you, then it’s also an easy exercise not to do.

For everyone else, please just try playing the game. Don’t just think about it. Do it. Especially with other people. Even if you are brilliant and creative and can see tons of connections, you will still have your eyes opened by what other people see. This is one of the great powers of the glass bead game – the connections it calls for are the ones that make sense to the player. Your incredible knowledge of the tapestry of classical literature is on equal footing with another players love of puns.

Anyway, beyond a certain threshold, I can only explain so much. Beyond that, it’s on you to try it or not.

  1. Ok, that is not a super technical word, and I cop to that. In the physical world, resonance is something that we can measure, but when we talk about ideas resonating, it’s pretty subjective, so to unpack it a little, ideas resonate when the idea of combining them is more interesting than any random ideas. One might reveal nuances of another, or cast another into sharp contrast. There’s a little bit of “You’ll know it when you see it”, but one of the subtle benefits of doing more glass beading is that it will help you get more sensitive to resonance, so if the idea is still kind of fuzzy now, it will get clearer with practice. ↩︎

Blackfingers Ep 2: Blades in the Bark

Not to put too fine a point on it, this was a weird session of Blades in the Dark.

First, our Spider had been temporarily shipped out of town, and in his place was a Whisper (Marek, an Iruvian ghost smuggler), so there was a high likelihood that the plans would go a little askew. We also were lacking our Lurk, so subtlety was going to be a challenge.

So, we started with a conversation that had begun at the close of last session, with a demon offering the crew a job (to destroy the reputation of a man who could not die) and very little choice in the matter. We have an 8 tick clock representing his patience which ticks down with every other job we do. So we’ve got that going for us.

For our actual score, we went for a turf grab, or as we liked to call it, “Brand Building”. We identified another small press (The Night Dispatch) that was not doing fantastically well, but had an established masthead, and started looking into how to take it over. After an exceptionally successful gather information roll, our slide befriended the editor and got all the information we needed for us to visit them with enough bad luck that they’d welcome a buyout.

The Whisper & Leech were sent to scare a paper shipment and set it on fire, while the Cutter was sent to break their printer’s hand. The scare-and-fire part went ok, except that it meant that panicked goatees were dragging an inferno through the night market, but that was less our problem than everyone’s problem.

The hand breaking went less smoothly, as this was our moment to discover that our Cutter had no dots in Wreck. Oops. Thankfully, it was a controlled situation, and when it turned into an actual fight, that was well within the Cutter’s wheelhouse.

Still, it all went mostly as intended, the Editor was delighted with our Slide’s offer of help, and we now have a “legit” business with future opportunities for financial shenanigans.

That wrapped up pretty quickly, so we felt like we had time for another score. Now, as the flaming goats were running though Night Market, our greatest regret was that the Leech had not yet completed his portable camera (the long term project he’s been working on since day one) because that would have made for a GREAT photo. So, while the rest of us pursued mundane matters, he finished it up so we’d be ready next time.

For the next score, the simple truth was we needed cash. We had lost money on the last score, and we were going to be eligible for a tier bump soon, so we really needed some dollars, so the discussion turned to ways that we could make fast cash. There were standard crime options, of course, but we now had this camera, and it seemed that should introduce options. Blackmail was considered, but that had some risks. But what if we opted for spectacle? A picture of a momentous event? That could work, but that would require an event.

So, we reasoned, perhaps a picture of an exceptionally cute puppy?

While offered as a bit of a joke, we quickly realized that most dogs in Duskvol are mangy, ratty beasts, so any very cute dog would belong to a rich person. Clearly, we needed to steal the cutest dog in Duskvol. As fun as this might have been, we then realized it might be easier to have the dogs brought to us.

And so the first annual Charterhall Dog Show was born.

What followed was….a little weird. We had just enough social pull to get people to come, though we had to skimp a bit on the location (the university is just so déclassé), and leveraged contacts for the one honest judge (to be outvoted by the other two crooked judges). Oh, and of course our Leech’s bookie showed up and from that point on the fix was in. The ultimate winner was Lady Roz’s Shitzu, but at least one noble left the affair righteously pissed off, so that’s going to come back and bite us.

But, critically, The Night Dispatch had a photo of an INCREDIBLY cute dog, as well as some buzz.

Between entry fees and the gambling, it was a VERY successful score, and between that and everyone going into their pockets (and the Slide diminishing her stash), the crew now has a weak hold on Tier 2. We’ve got some newsies now, and a clear business plan, but we also have some crows coming home to roost, so we’re all expecting a tough tonal change soon.


Random Notes

  • The dice were super on our side last night. Excepting some mishaps on our Cutter’s part, we were swimming in sixes, and that definitely contributed to the lighthearted, caper-y tone of the session. I suspect that if the dice had been pushing harder, things would have gone very differently.
  • I have a half-finished re-tooling of the core blades mechanic that uses Fate dice, and it’s skewed more strongly towards success than default blades. I have let it linger, but last nights play convinced me that it would actually be a very fun mode of play for a certain tone. So, that’s getting bumped back up the queue.
  • Playing a Whisper is weird (yes, that was me). At first I thought it was because the ghost/mystical/weird element of play was strange. That’s certainly part of it – I feel like I need a few more playbook advances if I really want to lean into that part of things. But I think part of it was also that Attune is a weird skill to lean on. A lot of the other skills you can apply flexibly enough that there’s a broad set of competence surrounding it, but attune is really very specific and was not much of a match to the play we were doing. I liked the character a lot, but he was a mismatch to the game we’re playing, so he’s probably dropping into the background and I’ll pick The Spider back up next session.
  • Having chosen to go primarily social has had such an impact on the shape of the game. Not in a bad way, but in a way that makes for an interesting tonal difference from more street-y games. A big difference is a lack of medium consequences – we’re a gadfly punching very high above our weight class, which is very profitable until we annoy someone enough that they have had enough. It’s very all of nothing, and we’re skating the edge of “all” as fast and hard as we can in hopes of having enough resources when the inevitable “nothing” hits. (It also helps that we have invested in all the lair defense upgrades, so it is very difficult to casually threaten that).

My Origins Haul


My Origins acquisitions, in the order I see them on the table (or they pop into my mind)

  • Hero Realms and all the class cards – I like Star Realms a lot, but I missed this kickstarter. This is about 85% Star Realms reskin with solid theme and nice tweaks. Have played a few games and enjoyed them. http://www.whitewizardgames.com/herorealms/
  • Dresden Files Accelerated – Technically got my copy as we left for Origins, but whatever. I have read some of this in PDF, and it’s awesome, but I’ve really been waiting for a physical copy. – http://www.evilhat.com/home/dresden-files-accelerated/
  • All the Tokaido – Core box, the minis set and both expansions. This is a great game which I should already own, so I fixed that. http://passportgamestudios.com/game/tokaido/
  • Jumpdrive – 15 minute Race for the Galaxy. Not an Origins release, but I only just found out about it, and found it at a bargain price. http://riograndegames.com/Game/1308-Race-for-the-Galaxy-Jump-Drive
  • Shahrazad and The Ravens of Thri Sahashri are both co-op games from Osprey because I wanted new co-op and those are the games twitter recommended. They are a total crapshoot. https://ospreypublishing.com/store/osprey-games
  • Vast: the Crystal Caverns – This is a weird game of tile laying and dragon slaying and other stuff with a million components and somewhat confusing rules, but it looks utterly intriguing and came well recommended, so I took a swing. http://ledergames.com
  • From the Gamelyn Games booth I picked up Tiny Epic Western and the expansion for Tiny Epic Galaxy. They had the expansion for Heroes too, but that game never clicked for me, and everything else was just promos. I had good luck with these games last year, and they’re a pain in the ass to acquire, so I was happy to scoop them up. http://www.gamelyngames.com/games/tiny-epic-quest/
  • Gravity Dice – I got a set of these last year and they were one of my favorite things from the Con. This year they had colors and 5 packs, so I picked some up for the family. http://gravitydice.com
  • Norse Foundry Fate Dice – They had new colors which were AWESOME, and there are some benefits to being the licensor. 🙂 https://metaldice.myshopify.com/collections/metal-fate-dice (Also got to see some of their aluminum dice and they are totally getting acquired at some point)
  • Fidget Spinners – So, two guys brought 4 duffle bags of high end fidget spinners and sold them out of a booth near the back. I am pretty sure that they made bank.
  • Pyramid Poker – It’s a stacking game with poker scoring that is two player fun, and there is a full 54 card deck of wooden bricks in the box, so it also begs for re-use and was super reasonably priced – http://rnrgames.com/pyramid-poker
  • Shadowrun Sixth World Tarot – Last year there was art for this all over the convention, but the deck was not yet out. Seeing that it was available, I scooped it right the hell up. (No link because Catalyst’s website it like a stab in the eye)
  • A Gencon 2015 Tote So, this was a gift from Jason at IPR upon discovery of what a bag nerd I am. It’s a gorgeous promotional bag with an image of the history of gaming on the side. It’s a goddamned treasure.
  • S. Petersen’ Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors – Ok, so this was a gorgeous book, and I got it as a gift for a friend I do not see nearly often enough. But here’s a thing: I don’t buy Lovecraftian stuff normally. It’s not my bag. But holy crap if the Chaosium booth was not full of really awesome looking stuff. I am used to it feeling dated and like it’s just riding on the strength of the CoC brand, but not this year – it was well stocked with things that looked exciting enough to push me to maybe reconsider my stance on Lovecraftia. http://www.chaosium.com/s-petersens-field-guide-to-lovecraftian-horrors-hardcover/
  • Set of Easy Roller Dice – In the absence of chessex the floor was stuffed with companies selling beautiful dice of every variety. I picked up some of the Easy Roller gunmetal ones as a gift, and they’re lovely, but I admit I had a bit of buyer’s remorse when I got the the Norse Foundry ones.
  • A buffer Quarterstaff from Forged Foam.  The kid had been asking for this for months, and it was stupid expensive, but totally worth it to see his face. https://www.forgedfoam.com/
  • Fabriano Notebook – These are wonderful notebooks and they are absolutely my weakness when I stop by the Columbus Dick Blick. http://fabriano.com/en/267/ecoqua

Things I didn’t get but merit mention

  • Blades in the Dark and The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game were both awesome things at the show, but I already had mine for obvious reasons. http://www.evilhat.com/home/dresden-files-cooperative-card-game/
  • I preordered a game called Unearth. Visually, it is very clearly derived from Monument Valley, which was initially off putting, but then I realized it was from the folks who made Boss Monster, so mimicking video game styles is already pretty much on brand for them. I got to play a little in the booth, and I liked it enough to actively talk it up to people. If they’d had it for sale, I’d have bought one. They did not, so preorder ($30, free shipping) was the way to go. http://www.brotherwisegames.com/product/unearth-preorder/
  • I will fully cop that I was skeptical about War of the Cross, the 7th Sea wargame that kickstarts on the 20th. My love of 7th Sea is well known, but I don’t really pick up war games these days, and war games based off RPG settings have a long history of mediocrity. However, I was entirely sold by the booth pitch. John described it as Cosmic Encounters meets Diplomacy, and while that immediately made me leery, Lenny supplemented the pitch with the explanation that it was “Divorce proof”, which intrigued me. Short form, the nations have some special tricks (that’s the Cosmic Encounters part) but the really interesting part are some tricks to streamline and standardize some diplomacy-style negotiation. I’ll be backing this. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/johnwickpresents/12387016?token=1d0034c6