Category Archives: ideastosteal

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.


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.


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 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.


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.


I just tweeted about this, but I like this enough that i want to capture it here. I have finally gotten around to reading the new Over the Edge. It’s not released yet, but I backed the kickstarter, and the pretty-much-final preview version got sent around recently, and I finally sat down to read it. I had not read any of the previews before that for two reasons. First, OtE is an INCREDIBLY important game to me, so I was willing to be patient. Second, I hate reading multiple versions of a game because all the rules stick in my head, and I end up in a muddle when all is done. This is why I don’t read any of the preview editions of even games that I love and am super excited about, like all of the Blades in the Dark family of stuff.

Anyway, there is a specific trick in the new OtE that I love and which I think is wonderfully portable. In the game, every character has a question. Now, to get the question, you pick some descriptor of their nature (Honorable, Honest, Merciless, Cruel and so on) but then append it with a question mark, so the character is “Honorable?” or “Merciless?”.

What this signifies is that this thing is both very true to the character and that it’s mostly true, but there are exceptions (which may or may not be communicated) and those exceptions are damn well going to come up in play.

I love this, for a host of reasons.

Dramatically, it’s just great, because it acknowledges that a lot of these essential ideas are more interesting in their exceptions and contradictions (but only if they still have weight to them). “Honest?” is more interesting than “Honest” or “Dishonest” because it implicitly brings in uncertainty and motivation rather than simply leaving it as essential.

Practically, it also addresses a classic communication problem in RPGs – when a player makes a statement about their character, it is not always obvious whether they’re establishing a baseline (and want it to be taken for granted) or if it’s a flag on something that they want to be pushed and tested.

For an easy illustration of this, let’s use a paladin. They’re good for this.

If my paladin is “Faithful” then his faith is a constant. If he is presented with temptations, he will reject them. If challenged, he will be resolute.

If my paladin is “Faithful?” then all of the above is true most of the time, but the outcome is less certain. When my faith is tested, there is a chance it will falter, and that’s something I want to play.

Sidebar: bear in mind that these can both be awesome characters. There’s a storytelling assumption that the latter is somehow better because it’s narratively more interesting, but that is looking at these elements in a vacuum. It’s good to have a mix of essentials and questions to make for a robust character.

Now, if you’ve read that far, it’s pretty obvious that this is an idea that’s easy to port to almost any other game. It needs not mechanics – it’s just a communication and description element, so it can really be applied to any game. But when the game has a space for such things, it’s all the easier to hook in.

The most obvious applicability is, of course, to aspects in Fate and related games. No new mechanics are required, but the simple act of turning an aspect into a question gives all the benefits we’ve been talking about and provides much greater clarity around expectations for compels and invocations. If I, as a GM, see a question mark at the end of an aspect, I take that as a clear indicator that you – as a player – want me to offer lots of possible compels there. And, implicitly, it also tells me to maybe not lean so hard on the ones that you don’t have a question mark next to.

Sidebar: In fact, I might even supplement this approach with exclamation points, to represent “implied comma, dammit” to the end of an aspect to make it CRYSTAL CLEAR that I take this as a bedrock assumption and am not interested in playing against it. This doesn’t mean no compels, but it does suggest the type of compels that the “Honorable!” Paladin is looking for are different than the type of compels the “Honorable?” Paladin wants.

So, as I said, I love this. I 100% intend to use this in my next Fate game, and encourage it in other games I run and play. There’s pretty much no downside to it, and if it sounds cool to you, definitely consider taking it for a spin.

What Makes a Skill

Yesterday, I stole one idea form Bulldogs! and today I’m going to steal another.

Back in the day, Feng Shui presented a very interesting way to handle skills that worked very well for it’s wide, loose model. In short, a skill represented three things. The first, Physical Ability, was the traditional meaning of a skill – actually doing the thing the skills described. If the skill was guns, it means shooting people. If it was Thief, it meant breaking picking locks and such. All standard enough.

The second thing, Knowledge, measured how knowledgeable you were about the skill in question. Thus, if you had a high guns skill, it also meant you had an encyclopedic knowledge of guns. This worked very well for the action-movie focus of the game, since that tends to be how action heroes operate. The thief may not be “The Smart Guy”, but he can rattle off the details about a specific type of bank vault with nothing more than a glance.

The last thing, Contacts, measured the character’s connection to the community surrounding the skill. This meant you knew who the other big players were in your space (“He was killed with a golden bullet through the left temple, the signature of Midas Mayhem!”) but also the broader network around it, including gun dealers, collectors, specialists and so on. Among other things, this meant that a thief could find a fence or a gun-bunny could get his hands on a bagfull of guns without much real hassle.

Now, I don’t know if Laws took this from another game, but for me it was a total eye-opener. By establishing these Skill Components, he’d neatly solved a ton of problems from more detailed systems that emerged from a disconnect between the character as envisioned and the character as supported by the rules. That is, even if you bought up your core skill, you would usually need to also buy up the far less rewarding Knowledge and Contact skills to avoid looking like a chump (or, as was more often the case, ignore them and hope the GM did the same).

I internalized this approach in my own play, to great satisfaction. In time, I added my own spin in the form of a fourth Skill Component for Perception (So gun guy could spot a sniper or a concealed carry without being Sherlock Holmes) and happily meandered onward.

But for all that, there was a bit of a downside to this, since it did not map to all sill lists, especially if you want to go to a finer grain. As an example, Feng Shui had the Intrusion skill, which covered a wide range of thiefly pursuits, and that worked. But if you ever needed to split it up (into, say, Burglar and Stealth) then you ran into weird questions, like what exactly Stealth Contacting meant. Is there a big Stealth community out there? Do they have a very sneaky newsletter?

Bulldogs! strikes at the root of that problem by taking a similar (but more detailed) breakdown and building _up_ from it to construct skills. The basic idea is that a skill can be used to do the following things: overcome an obstacles, make an assessment, make a declaration, place a maneuver, attack, defend or block.

Now, what exactly those mean has some system-specific weight, so if you’re not clear on what “make an assessment” means, then don’t sweat it (or go read SOTC) but what’s important is that those are, effectively, the seven mechanical things that a character can _do_ in the system, so using them as the baseline to define the skills makes for super tight engineering.

The idea is not portable in and of itself – those 7 things are fate specific – but the idea is a fascinating lens to take to another game and ask what characters can actually _do_. Curiously, you can end up coming around to a similar space as Apocalyse World’s moves this way, albeit from a somewhat different direction. In both cases the bones of system are laid bare, and the construction on top of them is made apparent to the reader.

So, yeah. It’s a good trick.

Space Race

Before I start, let me give a quick plug for a young gaming blog, The authors are a pair of talented and inspired writers who are already off to an excellent start, and promise many cool things yet to come.

Anyway, it should be obvious that I’m a big fan of Bulldogs!, and if it’s not obvious, I suggest taking a look at the lower left hand corner of the back cover, which should answer any questions about where I stand. It’s a fun game standing firmly on a well-loved piece of sci-fi real estate and, notably, just launched its own foray into fiction with Redwing’s Gambit, by the ever talented Monica Valentinelli, if that’s your bag.

For all its explosive, sci fi fun, I want to really call out two pieces of gaming technology that any designer might want to take into account. Neither is FATE specific (though one leans that way) and both could be powerful seeds for other games.

Today I’ll talk about the first, the handling of race. Race is a tricky thing – in fiction as in life – but it’s also an essential part of this sort of sci-fi. Alien races need some manner of hook to make them something other than different colored rubber suits, but at the same time it gets very dull when every member of the race is incredibly similar. The classic racial template model tends to stray a bit too close to the latter problem – it works very well when you have one alien of a particular type on the crew, but as soon as you introduce a second one, it gets weird. Think of any six episodes of Star Trek and you can probably see the problem.

However, if you stop and think about any six episodes (well, any six *good* episodes) of Deep Space 9, you can get a sense of what you want to see. Since DS9 had so many recurring alien characters, it was no longer sufficient for “Ferengi” or the like to be a sufficiently distinguishing feature to leave it at that. Instead, it was a starting point to build a character on. Bulldogs! has found a way to build that into chargen, and quite cleverly.

See, it starts with a list of 10 aspects for every race. They’re good, colorful aspects and they paint a nice and complete picture of each race. Presenting them this way spared the author the need to write up long descriptive blurbs for each race that restates the content of those aspects. The aspect tell us plenty about the race and about how others might feel or react to them. That’s all implicit in the aspect list itself. It’s a dirty trick, and a super clever one.

If you stop there, this is basically just a clever presentation of the classic racial template – good, but dull. The twist comes in application. A character is only expected to take two of those aspects.

It’s a simple thing, but the impact is profound for a couple of reasons. First, it creates a range for a lot of different aliens of the same species, but it does so in a way that doesn’t abandon the complete picture – the fact that your character doesn’t use 8 of the aspects doesn’t mean those don’t exist, it just means they’re less important to you. The full list provides a context that the narrowed selection takes advantage of. To put it in concrete terms, it means Klingon poets might be a rarity, but they’re not impossible to make (or even penalized) – just pick the aspects that dovetail with your concept.

And as a bonus, it makes the GM’s job MUCH easier for creating NPCs. The simple act of choosing _not_ to use some baseline aspects can tell you plenty about a character. Plus, if you’re feeling lazy, you can just use more than two of them if you need to quickly stat someone up.

It’s also worth nothing that the game gracefully avoids the “Humans are the baseline” problem which often accompanies these systems. The human-equivalents are handled in exactly the same way as everyone else in this regard.

For interested GMs, it’s super portable to any system that uses descriptors of any sort (whether they’re feats, distinctions or anything else) to construct groups. Races are the most obvious application, but it’s easy to see how this could be used for organizations in the vein of White Wolf’s old splats. Hell, it could be narrowed in scope and be used to create fencing schools. Anything where you need things to share a common root but have different expressions could be well served by borrowing this idea.


This has been stuck in my head as I’ve been reading through Influencer by Patterson, Greny et al. It’s a book about how people change their minds – in some ways a practical companion to the Heath Brother’s Switch – and it’s chock full of interesting stuff. But the bit that’s been riding me has been that about persuasion and how it works.

See, verbal persuasion (making a good argument and so on) works pretty well in lots of situations so long as the recipient trusts your intentions and your expertise and so long as they’re not already invested in the subject. If another cook offers you a tip on how to prepare garlic, odds are good you’ll change your behavior and give it a try provided you don’t think they’re trying to pull a fast one. But for less tractable issues, ones where there’s already an investment or other sorts of gravity? Well, the book puts it quite well:

Consequently, whenever you use forceful and overt verbal persuasion to try to convince others to see things your way, they’re probably not listening to what you say. Instead, they’re looking for very error in your logic and mistake in your facts, all while constructing counterarguments. Worse still, they don’t merely believe you’re wrong, they need you to be wrong, in order to protect the status quo. And since the final judge exists in their own head, you lose every time.

I read that and had to go dig up a highlighter to mark it, because I had never seen every argument on the internet, ever, described so succinctly.

The author’s go on to assert that the best real persuader is personal experience, and I have to agree with that. Seeing and doing real things impacts people profoundly, in a way that just thinking or talking about it does not. But they concede the problem with that is that experience can be hard to come by, especially specific experience. And that is where stories come in.

The book has an interesting output driven view on stories as our most effective tool for creating vicarious experiences. That is to say, if you can’t actually be there, a good story from a good storyteller is the next best thing in terms of power to influence how you think. This is not news – marketing has been telling us for years that we sell with stories, but I found this the most practically explained framework for the idea to date.

And it also has me thinking about what we mean when we say stories. What’s interesting about this approach is that it talks very little about how to tell good stories, instead acknowledging that it can be done well or poorly and moving on, and just concentration on the _outcomes_. This fascinates me because, I think, it highlights some of why the term is so contentious in gaming as some people talk about inputs and others talk about outputs, and are then so busy stabbing each other to sort it out.

Anyway, I’m still chewing on this, but I needed to get it out of my head and into circulation.

Cool Monday: Gamestorming

As a gaming guy who has to work in a day job, I was utterly drawn in by Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo. Dave Gray has written a lot of interesting things about sketching and data visualization in the past, and this particular book is dedicated to using games in a business context. These are games designed to inspire creativity, build teams, brainstorm and otherwise do the things that are supposed to happen at meetings but very rarely do.

I admit, I’m an easy sell when it comes to the idea of finding utility in games, and this book makes a great case for that, with almost three quarters of the book dedicated to specific examples. That said, the fist section is actually a broad analysis to games which I found utterly fascinating. Specifically, there’s a lovely analysis of games as creating a range of ideas, kicking those ideas around, then narrowing down the range of ideas until you have a winner. This struck me in large part because of something that has a lot of utility in Dresden Files city creation. The system’s very good at creating a bunch of ideas and kicking them around, but I think the narrowing step could probably use some work. It’s a great example of how a good model can give insight into an existing system.

Now, I think this is a great book from a business perspective, but my appreciation is a lot nerdier. See, a lot of the games that are useful for business could also be a lot of use when brought back to gaming. Specifically, a lot of situation, scenario and character design and collaboration can be acquired through these games.

Even better, a lot of the game techniques can be used to solve long-standing game problems. Specifically, a lot of the games are designed with checks to keep the more talkative members of the group from directing everything while at the same time working to draw out contributions form people who might normally be hesitant to speak up. For me, at least, this is a situation I’ve seen at many gaming tables, and any way to address it is welcome.

To illustrate, I’m going to pull out a couple of the games that really struck me as ones that could apply to RPGs, but I’m just scratching the surface here. If this is even faintly interesting, I strongly encourage you check out the book and the blog.

Start with a topic, (such as a setting element). Each player takes an index card and writes down an idea or object related to the topic. Redistribute the cards (pass to the write) then add to or enhance the idea on the card. Repeat several cycles of, possibly starting fresh. The result will be the equivalent of a loud brainstorming session, but you’ll have gotten input from everyone.
As a twist, I note this one can be done entirely by email, if the GM is willing to administrate. Has the advantage of hiding handwriting or groups in which that matters.

Context Map
The context map is a visualization game to study and reveal the influences on an organization, such as the trends affecting a business. It can be applied equally well to fictional organizations and situations, and is a great situation builder.

Heuristic Ideation Technique
Fans of Shock or the 5×5 adventure design system will recognize this method. will recognize this one, and a mention it mostly for that. Basic Idea is a 5×5 grid, with 5 elements on each axis, and the grid used to review how those elements intersect.

Like a post-mortem for a problem, but done in advance, to consider the things that might/will go wrong. Struck me as a great way to design adventures by starting with a goal and building the problems from that.

5 Whys
Start with a problem, and ask everyone to write down why it’s a problem. Line up those answers as the top of several columns, then go down each column 5 times, asking why the the thing above is a problem. This is a great way to boil down bigger issues, but in gaming it’s a great way to build the backbone of a campaign with problem like “The Dark Lord Rising” and such.

Keys and Explicit Compels

The Shadow of Yesterday has a fantastic mechanic (one of many) called “keys” that allow the player to determine in which circumstances they gain XP. It’s easier to show than explain so consider this:

Key of Conscience

Your character has a soft spot for those weaker than their opponents. Gain 1 XP every time your character helps someone who cannot help themselves. Gain 2 XP every time your character defends someone with might who is in danger and cannot save themselves. Gain 5 XP every time your character takes someone in an unfortunate situation and changes their life to where they can help themselves. Buyoff: Ignore a request for help.

XP is pretty easy to come by in TSOY, so much so that many GMs just let players track it themselves. It’s so easy that the first time you play it seems like cheating, but really, that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

Now, there are a lot of interesting similarities between Keys and Aspects, and at some point I want to discuss in game currency vs. XP as a reward, but before I do that, I want to highlight one incredibly important difference – Keys are almost entirely player triggered. That is to say, the GM might set up situations where the key might or might not come up, but it’s the player’s decision that drives the reward.

Even more importantly, the player explicitly knows what will trigger a key. There might be a little wiggle room, but it’s much more transparent than something entirely dependent on GM interpretation.

If this idea appeals, there’s nothing that says it can’t get applied to Aspects equally easily – the only thing it requires is explicitly writing down what circumstances might trigger an aspect for good or ill. For example, if I have the Aspect “Soft Hearted” I could add a note that says “Gain a Fate Point whenever the character makes trouble for himself by helping someone in trouble.”

In doing this I am, effectively, writing my own compels. What’s more, I am also communicating very clearly to the GM the kinds of situations where I expect to see this aspect come up. In doing so I’m making it easier for him to do so.

Explicit compels are far from the only technique that supports this. Aside from just talking to the GM, things like anchors[2] are designed to serve a similar purpose. But for players who are not entirely comfortable with the “fuzzy” nature of aspects, this sort of explicit detail may help them get a grasp on things.

1 – Buyoff is basically how you get the key off your sheet. It pays off big time, with 10 XP, more than enough to buy a new Key, but you can’t re-buy the key you’ve bought off.

2 – Explicit setting elements (people & places) tied to each aspect.

Transparent Outcomes

Apocalypse World brought another bit of game design tot he to of my mind, one that I’ve always instinctively liked but never given much though to – transparent outcomes.

Games with transparent outcomes are one where the player can roll the dice, look at them, and know roughly what happened. At it’s most obvious, success of failure can be read off the dice, but often it’s a bit more nuanced than that. But before we get to that, let’s step back a bit.

What makes transparent outcomes different is that there is no element of secret information in the exchange. In D&D, you roll a d20 and if you rolled high you probably hit, but you don’t actually know for sure. The GM knows the number you need to hit, and that is revealed to you after the fact. If, as is sometimes the case, you knew the number you needed to hit before you rolled, then you would be able to immediately proceed, either mechanically (with rolling damage) or descriptively.

That would be a transparent outcome, and some game straddle the line on this with the assumption that the GM will always communicate the target that needs to be hit. However, in practice I have seen that to more often be a function of table best practices, and it is usually subject to specific vagaries. For example, a GM who usually shares target numbers might obscure them for perception checks.

For a game with truly transparent outcomes, the resolution is apparent in the dice. For example, in the Storytelling system, you only need one success to succeed at a task. This gets muddled somewhat with contested rolls, but as a baseline it’s pretty spiffy and rewarding to players. For me, it’s probably the single biggest mechanical improvement from oWoD (which often required a variable number of successes) to nWoD.

But where this gets interesting is nuance. Apocalypse world, for example, adds a third tier. Roll 2d6+stat (usually a value form -1 to +3) – on a 6 or less you fail and the GM gets up in your grill. On a 10+ you succeed. But on a 7-9 you get a complicated success. You might succeed with a cost or consequence, or you might manage only a partial success. This is nice, but only the beginning. Talislanta had Mishap, Failure, Partial success, Full Success, and Critical success.[1]

I think the finest grain probably came from the Dying Earth system (now in generic form as Skulduggery) where the range was:
1 – Total failure
2 – Failure
3 – Partial Failure
4 – Partial Success
5 – Success
6 – Exceptional success

Corresponding to a single d6 roll

Now, the fact that these outcomes are transparent does not mean that they do not require interpretation. Some of these may have specific mechanical meaning (Such as doing a certain amount of damage or offering certain choices) but even beyond that, the GM still has a role in spinning forward the outcome.

Yet despite that, what this does is remove a step in the player/GM communication. THe dice hit the table and there is a shared understanding regarding the outcome which allows play to proceed more smoothly. If you’re very interested in the back and forth between players and GMs to proceed without a hitch, then transparent outcomes are probably something you should consider.

But they’re not suitable for every game. While “secret information” may sound sinister, in reality it is a way to increase uncertainty, which is important in games where the sense of risk is important. When dealing with smart, math-oriented players, secret information is what keeps everything from degrading into a pure statistical exercise. As a rule of thumb, if the actual play of the game is part of the fun (rather than just the necessary vehicle to move back to the play you consider important) then transparent outcomes are less useful. To use a concrete example, much of the fun of D&D is in the actual engagement with the fighting mechanics. Lots of rolling, lots of uncertainty. Secret information makes things more exciting.

In contrast, in a lighter game where the mechanics are engaged for just moment, to answer a question as it were, there’s a lot to be said for transparent outcomes.

Now, there are more variables than this. Margin of Success, for example, throws a whole other wrench into this thinking, so don’t go thinking that the choice is black and white. But when the time comes to design your own system, take a minute to think about whether or not transparent outcomes are for you.

1 – Many games actually have 4 outcomes – Critical failure, failure, success and critical success – even if they don’t actively view it that way.

Apocalyptic Ramble

I was going to write about podcasts, but my brain kept turning this over and wouldn’t let go. So, apologies that it gets a little rambly. I’m still pinning something down myself.

Apocalypse World continues to gnaw at my brain, which probably speaks well for it. I expect I’m just going to have to run it to get it out of my system, sooner rather than later.

I had an interesting exchange with Vincent Baker on the 6 session topic. There’s a bit of the text that suggests that after 6 sessions is when the game gets good, which stuck me as a weird (and problematic) sentiment. Turns out it might more aptly say that something particularly cool happens around then, though I sort of took Vincent at his word for that. What caught my interest was another comment he made (and I’m paraphrasing) that the only thing he objected to was people thinking the game was an treadmill of bleak hopelessness before 6 sessions.

That got me thinking a bit. I admit, the sense of bleakness I got from reading the rules was a bit off-putting. Not that it was bad so much as it proposed a game I was not necessarily interested in playing. Still, the prospect of things turning a corner is a compelling one, enough so that I gave it some serious thought. Part of the rub is that sometime around session 6 (or more precisely, after 6 advances) you can buy your own happy ending. That is to say, you can retire the character and he is guaranteed some protection from the awfulness of the world. So by retiring your character under your own terms you makes the world a better place.

This is, I admit, kind of cool, but it put me back to thinking because, for me, that wasn’t quite right. I don’t want to save me – I want to save someone else. It’s just one of my play sensibilities.[1] Now, it’s an easy thing to change: Add the ability to “retire” someone as an option and you’re good to go. Yes, technically, it’s not a new move, but I feel like it’s probably a reasonably in-bounds change with the knowledge that it makes for a drastic change in tone. But that’s not important.

What interested me as I thought about that tweak, it struck me that AW’s rigidity really makes for some interesting hackery. Like 4e, the fact that the mechanical moving parts are right on the surface and closely interact means that it’s a lot easier to make small changes to great effect. And the fact that AW has fewer moving parts than 4e makes it possibly even better suited to such things.

As an example, I ended up mapping the characters to Firefly (which works suspiciously well) and I realized that one thing I found lacking in the characters was interaction. I really love the Savvyhead’s “Oftener Right” move (which gives a benefit when people come to you for advice and take it) and I love First Quest’s Banners[2] so it seemed the obvious thing to do was say each character adds a move for other characters. Bang. Done.

Now, the counterargument here is that as easy as it is to say “bang, done” the reality is far more fiddly, which seems apt. There is a bit of deceptiveness to the simplicity of AW as a lot of the moves, especially on the GM’s part, are a lot more complicated than they appear. They are easy to do, but also easy to do poorly. I think they dovetail wonderfully with a certain level of GM skill or experience, but I have occasionally heard people talk about how the simplicity makes it a great training game for a GM and I admit that prospect makes me wary. Barf Forth Apocalyptica is a great principle, but it’s easier said than…er, said.

Of course, the game’s not necessarily supposed to be a set of training wheels. It’s probably more aptly an intermediate or master class, and that’s a good thing. It’s an under-served slice of things.

Anyway, the bottom line is that AW is good enough to make me think about it, and about other games through its lens. It has, for example, inspired some very solid thoughts on Aspects of radically different persuasions. But that is, I think, a topic for another day.

1- Fred wants his heart to bleed so bad it comes out his eyes. I want to eat bitter to make a difference. Everyone’s got a lever like that.

2 – It’s a TSOY expansion from Judd’s First Quest. In TSOY you can get XP by doing certain things in keeping with a Key (so if you have the Key of Anger you may get XP for losing your temper). Banners expand this so other people can get XP for playing to your key (so they may get an XP forpissing you off). It’s pretty awesome.

Exception World

I had put off my post-gencon purchases for a while, and that combined with some curiosities of timing to result in a bundle of truly fantastic looking games to cross my threshold at roughly the same time: Dark Sun, the new DC Adventures, Blowback, Remember Tomorrow and Apocalypse World. I’m still working through the pile, but the gravitational pull of AW was too strong for me to resist, so I’ve pretty much devoured it.

This isn’t a review of Apocalypse World. I might make one at some point, but others are doing a fair job of talking it up. But in the interest of summation, I would say that it was absolutely worth it’s (Slightly High) price tag. This is a complete Vincent Baker design (as opposed to some or most of a design) and while it’s worth it as a game, the reality is that the biggest interest is going to come from rules wonks and design theorists looking to see the shiny newness. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. This is not to say my enthusiasm is unreserved, but my turnoffs are few enough and idiosyncratic enough to have no place in a nutshell.[1]

Rather, I want to zero in on a particular element of the rules that really struck me as interesting, that is to say, how strongly the rules seem in keeping with those of a Collectible (or non-Collectible) card game.

Ok, so for all the interesting things to say about AW the one that explains the most things is that there is a rule for everything. This is not necessarily to say there are a lot of rules (there aren’t) but rather that every action taken is represented with a rule. There’s no soft, interpretive space – if you’re doing something, there’s a rule for it.

These rules are called “moves”, and there’s an explicit set of them handling basic actions (Threatening people, helping, perception checks and so on) as well as class specific ones (like healing). If you want to add a new rule to the game (or make a ruling to handle a special situation) then you add a new move to represent it. This idea that everything is rules is a pretty powerful one[2] and may merit its own post at some point, but I want to zero in on a specific bit of structure to it.

The quiet workhorse of the game is a specific move called “Act Under Fire”. You use this move when you try to do something hard, and the rules are basically this: Roll 2d6 and add your cool. 2-6, you blow it and the GM does something bad. On a 10+ you pull it of. On a 7-9 you don’t quite pull it of and the GM can do things like present you with a hard choice or a diminished outcome. There’s some game-specific terminology at work, but that’s the heart of it.

It’s presented like every other move, but the trick of this particular move is that it’s the true baseline of play. Everything else is some manner of variation on this idea of success, failure and modified success. That is to say, this is the baseline rule, and every other move is basically an exception to it.

Some of you might see where this is going: Apocalypse World is a fantastic (and somewhat unique) example of exception based design. This is an idea in game design that a game will have only a very simple core set of rules, with all of the intricacies and complexities coming from rules for explicit situations (that is to say, exceptions to the normal flow of things).

This comes up a lot in the context of CCGs because most CCGs are exception based designs. The basic rules tend to be very simple: rules for drawing and playing cards, maybe some basic actions, but its all very straightforward. However, each card has a little bit of rules text on it which applies when it’s played. That’s how it gets interesting to play.[3]

Apocalypse World’s play could pretty easily be boiled down into a deck of cards, probably with less material effort than goes into most boardgames. Cards for the key elements of the character sheets and to track a few things, then cards for the moves you have personally available. And that’s pretty fascinating. The RPG that successfully incorporates CCG elements has been something of a holy grail for a while, often discussed but rarely achieved in anything but a peripheral fashion. AW’s structure suggests a clear way to do so. Not only could you easily play with the rules as is, if you want to add a random element for a different type of game entirely, the move structure would make that very easy indeed.

In any case, AW gives a lot to talk about, but this particular bit absolutely has me turning over potentials in my head.

1 – Ok, except the 6 sessions thing. That’s weak sauce.
2 – It’s also the engine behind 4e.
3 – Elizabeth S. very reasonably compares the moves to menu selection in a CRPG rather than a CCG, and rightly so, but the principal is the same, just adding menu items rather than cards.