SWOT in the Dark

Ok, nerdbusiness time.

There is a technique used in business called SWOT analysis, which is used for things like brainstorming or figuring out next steps. It’s a tool for stepping back and analyzing the reality of your business, group or the like, and hopefully gleaning insight into what to do next.

Conveniently, it is also a really handy template for adventure creation and for fleshing out your game. A PDF with the form and some directions can be downloaded here.

For purposes of illustration, I’m going to use Blades in the Dark, because the specifics of that game align particularly well with this approach, but the underlying idea applies equally well to any game where the players are a coherent group in a consistent context.

So, this technique, like so many expensive consultation driven models, is a glorified way to label four boxes. In this case, the boxes are summarized in the acronym SWOT:

4 boxes: Upper left labeled "Strengths", Upper right labeled "Weaknesses", Lower left labeled "Opportunities" and Lower right labeled "threats"

S – Strengths
W – Weaknesses
O – Opportunities
T – Threats

The practice of filling in the boxes is largely self-explanatory, but there are a few tricks that can make it a little easier and more fruitful.

Strengths

What is it that the crew does well enough that someone else might want them to do it? That is to say, while crews can do a LOT of things, this is where we focus on things that might distinguish them from other groups, both generally and specifically.

Generally, the crew type is probably a pointer towards this, but it’s also somewhat incomplete. A gang of cutters might excel at doing violence, but that is something that many groups can do. What sort of violence does this crew excel at? Do you call them when you want maximum intimidation? Do they specialize in ambushes? Are they a top notch security force?

Individual character strengths also contribute to this, but only if it can be tied clearly to the team. If one of the team members is a master of disguise, that is only a strength if the group integrates that skill into its activities, rather than is just being an adjacent activity.

It’s worth noting that the real value of this list is often found in the combinations rather than the individual elements. That is to say, if strengths include “doing violence” and “knowledge of Six Towers”, neither of those are terribly distinguishing, but in combination they suggest an obvious opportunity the next time violence is needed that depends on the details of Six Towers.

Weaknesses

On the flipside, what is the group bad at? Where are they vulnerable? What kind of jobs do they really not want to end up needing to do.

As with strengths, the crew type probably provides some pointers towards this, but it will also probably be a bit less clear cut because there’s a good chance that the players have made choices to intentionally mitigate group weaknesses. For example, even in a group of slides and lurks, there is probably one cutter who acts as the team’s muscle.

The thing is, that does not cancel the weakness, it merely mitigates it. In our prior example, this crew would still be in trouble in a rumble, even if the cutter is able to put up some resistance, so their relative inability in a fight is probably still a weakness. But if a few more members toughen up, or if the gang recruits some muscle, then they might be able to offset the weakness.

In situations like this, look for the “single point of failure” – situations where the only thing which keeps a problem at bay is one individual or resource. If something happening to that individual would expose the crew to trouble, then that’s a weakness.

Weaknesses also may cover domains of operation or information. What happens if you drop this group into high society? The Docks? A roomful of ghosts?

Sidebar – In The Middle

The ghost thing raises a key point: there are lots of things which would be bad, but are not necessarily weaknesses. Just as crews can do many things which are not necessarily their strengths, there are many things which would be bad but are not necessarily weaknesses. The key thing to identify a weakness is that this group would be worse off in this situation than a comparable group. Similarly, a strength distinguishes the group in some way.

In short, most of the things a crew can do are neither strengths nor weaknesses, but are simply facts of life.

Context absolutely plays a role in this. To use one example, crew tier is not intrinsically a weakness or a strength – it’s just a fact of life. It becomes a weakness or strength in certain situations. If a small crew has big enemies, their Tier is weakness. if a large crew is throwing their weight around on a neighborhood level, their tier is probably a strength. But for a crew operating largely around its own weight class, it’s just the way things are.

Opportunities

Opportunities are things the crew could do but haven’t yet, for one reason or another. The reason might be as dull as “haven’t gotten around to it yet” or as challenging as “if only we could get past that dragon”.

Just as the crew type provides the first pointers for strengths, the crew sheet is the first place to look for opportunities. Right off the bat, claims are something of a laundry list of opportunities for the crew. Any adjacent claim is potentially an opportunity, with the main limiter being how well or poorly it’s been fleshed out.

Faction relationships also

Note that while opportunities can be very discrete (as in the case of claims) they can also be a little bit general (as may be the case with factions) in a “there is an opportunity there but we don’t know what it is yet.” An opportunity for an opportunity is still an opportunity.

One other useful thing to look at is the intersection between opportunities and strengths, and specifically ask whether the group has the opportunity to develop new strengths.

Threats

Where weaknesses helped us understand where the crew might be vulnerable, threats help us understand who might exploit those weaknesses or otherwise do harm to the crew.

It’s important to note that while enemies may be threats, not every threat is an enemy. While an enemy might consciously choose to exploit a weakness (if they know about it), there are other forces that will exert pressure on a weakness in an utterly indifferent manner. That is, if the crew is dependent on a single source for their goods, that’s a weakness. Even if none of their enemies know about this source, then that source is still vulnerable to other forces – his enemies, sure, but also the vagaries of day to day life. If your source is Iruvian and the Ministry starts rounding up Iruvians, that is a threat to the crew even though it’s not directed at the crew at all.

None of which is to say enemies shouldn’t be tracked here. Any faction with a negative relationship with the crew probably deserves a mention in this box. Even if they’re not actively engaging the crew at the moment, they certainly won’t pass up an opportunity if the situation arises.

Using the tool

Obviously, the act of using SWOT analysis is as simple as filling out the form, but there are better and worse ways to go about it. Critically, this benefits most strongly from being a shared exercise between players and GM, because getting EVERYONE’s answers to these question is incredibly informative, especially on the subject of opportunities and threats.

Opportunities in particular are an area where the GM really wants to know how the players see things, because if they players don’t see opportunities, then the game is likely to stall. Having an exercise like this where the group contribute their answer to these questions and express opinions on this is a much healthier way to flesh this out than to have the GM just present a buffet of things that she finds interesting.

Some GMs might feel a little bit of resistance to being equally transparent about threats for fear of spoiling surprises or telegraphing their next move to the players. This can be a fair concern, depending on the specifics of the table, but in that case the concern is easily mitigated by fact that there is no need to get to specific about how the threats might manifest. The table can have an open discussion about the fact that the crew’s hq is vulnerable without the GM needing to say “and this faction is going to exploit that”. If anything, getting buy in to the existence of the threat means players will be more strongly invested if it is brought to bear.

A Few More Tricks

  • As the GM, if you are looking for ideas for your game, take a look at any group or faction connected to the crew (for good or ill) and do a SWOT analysis on them. I promise that after one or two of them
  • Almost anything in the threat box can be a clock. Hell, feel free to put clocks IN the threat box.
Same diagram as above (4 boxes: Upper left labeled "Strengths", Upper right labeled "Weaknesses", Lower left labeled "Opportunities" and Lower right labeled "threats") but with Strengths and weaknesses labeled as internal, and opportunities and threats labeled as external.
  • If it is not obvious what category something should fall into, use the following rule of thumb: Strengths and weaknesses are internal to the crew. They are things which are part of their nature, and (to at least some extent) under their control. Opportunities and threats are external to the crew, and are parts of the environment that the crew operates in, and are things to be responded to, but are not under the crews control.

Dang

Ok, so I knew I had not written here for a while, but firing this up this morning reveals that my last post was in November, and that’s a bit mortifying. Clearly, the clever answer is to dash off a brilliant post right now in an explosion of good intentions, but I know that’s a losing proposition, so I’ll beg a little more patience. I am in the midst of changing a bit of my situation in hopes of re-enabling a bit of writing time, because I deeply and genuinely miss it.

Wish me luck.

The Imprisoned

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

Expanded Spell List

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

Dangerous Channelling

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

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

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

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

Energizing Ward

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

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

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

Puppet Strings

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

Elemental Chains

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

Pact Boon

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

Pact of the Chain

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

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

Pact of the Blade

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

Pact of the Tome

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

For the DM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Notes

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

It’s All In The Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

System Engagement

Decisions, Decisions

Buckle up. This is a weird one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Games are made of uncertainty resolved by decisions.

2) Those decisions can be implemented in many ways

3) Those decisions can be valued in many ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Urban Body

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

Like a person, a city has:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clockblockers

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

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

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

Capitalizing on Alignment

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

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

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

A simple breakout might look like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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