Category Archives: Social

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.


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.

The Critical Audience

Much of what I think of as tactics come out of pushing little plastic and metal figures across a series of squares, where it’s all about the relative position of things. After some excellent conversation on twitter, it struck me that the same could be applied to criticism.

Now, I do not pretend to speak to big C Criticism, where there are decades, even centuries of academic tradition, schools of thought and Deep, Meaningful Understanding. Instead, I’m talking about one fellow getting on the Internet and talking about a game he liked or didn’t like, and how that’s received.

This is on my mind of late because I’ve been bombarded by examples of how badly our hobby handles thoughtful but negative criticism. This is frustrating to me because well thought out criticism from someone unhappy with a product is incredibly valuable and useful in my eyes. It is a terrible shame that the expectation is that such a review is basically an invitation for an internet ass-whuppin.

So as I got to thinking about this, it struck me that there’s a large potential for disconnect when you consider the audience. Put simply, is the criticism written for the artist, or for the audience for his work?[1] It’s not a hard question, and either answer suggests some specific things, that are easy to address. If the review is clearly directed at the artist, it is not unreasonable for the artist to respond in a personal fashion, perhaps even taking umbrage (because the reviewer has opened the door to dialog – more on that in a bit), but if the artist takes a similar response to a review that is very clearly for the public, then it’s the artist who is picking a fight.

And there’s the rub – if the answer is not clear, then right out the door you have an invitation for disaster as appropriate responses on one end become inappropriate responses on the other.

Now, it would be easy to suggest that the answer is to just assume all reviews are public facing, and consider communications directed to the artist to be directed to her. Sadly, things rarely work that way (especially on forums), and there is a natural bias for the artist to think they’re being addressed directly, even if that is not the intent.

This leads to a lot of seeds of unproductive discourse, so I want to talk about each kind of criticism and its role.

Criticism directed at the artist has its place, and is in fact a critical part of many creative processes. These critics carry other names, like editors, alpha readers or trusted friends, but their job is that of the critic, to speak to the work. However, it is critical to note that most of these contributors speak to the artist before the work is finished, and most of them would not presume to continue the criticism after completion. Once the art is completed, the number of people who the author is willing to listen to directly is limited by the bounds of her trust. Whatever element of the work goes out into the world, there is always some part of it that exists only between the artist and her work. To presume on that is to invite a strongly negative emotional response.

Yet that is exactly what a critic does when addressing his criticism to the artist rather than the audience. Even assuming the best of intentions – that he wants to help the artist’s next work be better and that he’s looking to foster a dialog – it is a vast presumption. The author is not obliged to enter into a dialog with a critic any more than the critic is obliged to think well of her work.

Now, this is not an incomprehensible instinct on the critic’s part. He wants to help and he wants to make a connection. Both of these are normal, human instincts. But he’s doing so in a manner comparable to the man who wishes to ingratiate himself by telling you about your mate’s flaws on the presumption that you do not know them and that clearly you’re looking to upgrade.

If, in contrast, criticism is directed to the audience, then there is no presumption. The critic is speaking to the subject at hand and, assuming good faith on the part of all parties[2], he’s on solid footing to do so. The artist’s personal relationship with her work is not being challenges, and the artist is free to take the criticism or leave it, as best suits her own judgment or taste. This criticism might ultimately be useful to the artist, but only if the artist chooses to make it so.

All of which is to say, there’s a lot to be gained from making it clear who you’re speaking to when you want to talk about someone’s game.

Now, I’ve put a lot on the critic’s head here, but there’s another side of the equation. If the critic is taking steps to keep the criticism from being personal, the artist needs to not take it as such. Yes, they may hate the thing you love, but that does not change it (or you), and you need to decide if striking them down with thunderous fury is worth everything you lose in squelching discussion.

But it’s not that simple is it? Most artists I know develop thick enough skins to handle the criticism, or have other ways to deal with it. They know that a critic who thoughtfully hates their work is still a thousand times more invested in it than someone who’s never heard of it and doesn’t care. But it’s not just about the artists, it’s about the people who love them.

And that’s the hard thing. You see someone says bad things about a book you love and who’s creator you consider a friend – the instinct is to kick someone’s ass. Even if the creator is chill about it all, her self-appointed defenders are quick to step up.

Yes, some very cynical folks exploit this phenomena, allowing them to keep their hands clean while their supporters run around like angry vikings, but I think they’re in the minority. In most cases the artist might not agree with the actions taken, but also appreciate the underlying sentiment, and thus won’t rein it in. Not that they really could.

The thing is that the friends and defenders need to realize that criticism, even negative criticism, is valuable to the artist. Squelching bad reviews is a Nile perch solution. It looks like it helps in the short term, but in the long run it makes things worse for the artist as fewer and fewer readers are willing to start the kinds of conversations that really bring a game to life.

If you want to do the best thing you can for your friends, then use these reviews as the basis for interesting discussion. Speaking as a creator, praise is nice, criticism is useful, but nothing is quite as amazing as knowing your ideas have helped push people to find other awesome ideas. Being criticized is far, far, far less important than being talked about.

Anyway, that’s just my take on it – obviously there’s no one true way to review or respond, but as someone who wants the world to be as full of as much robust discussion of the things I love as possible, I present my perspective.

1 – As an aside, it is kind of fascinating to me that this question can be asked at all. Before the internet, you had to be in a very particular time and place if you wished to direct your criticism to the artist directly. Nowadays, if both the artist and the critic are on the internet, anything goes.

2 – And no, you can’t always assume good faith, but if the problem is that the critic’s being a jerk, that is usually self evident. If it not so clear that as to be irrefutable, they’re probably just being snarky and it’s equally likely you’re just being oversensitive.