Worldbuilding: The Mad Libs Approach

Building a setting piecemeal is sometimes difficult, but often fun and rewarding. By playing mad libs with your setting, you’re able to cram together a wild group of ideas that fill out your underlying concepts and give the whole thing its own distinct flavor. My favorite example of this was Continue reading

Blending Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots with D&D

Call of Cthulhu—for all it’s other Lovecraft-inherited flaws—has traditionally done a good job of building expectations of death and insanity into the core of the game. Furthermore, it has done this in a way that builds tension for longer campaigns without (usually) compromising the characters central to those campaigns. CoC does this best by blending one-shots with longer campaigns.

D&D can make use of this! I plan to do this in a game I’m starting soon.

The way that Call of Cthulhu usually handles this is by using a one-shot to set the scene and tone of a longer campaign. Characters in those one-shots are sacrificial, and their survival is a surprise rather than a given.

While similar assumptions of character death underlie old school B/X D&D, those assumptions are less present in most 5th edition D&D games that I’ve been in (or run) recently. Many players have more heroic narrative expectations of their characters. But I want to use Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots in a longer D&D game to give the players a better sense of the tensions and threats that await them.

My hope is to let players experience the fates of other characters (who are not their primary campaign ones). By uncovering the setting’s past, through magical archaeology or some other information gathering, I would let them play one-shots as characters other than their PCs. The players would know beforehand some of the conclusions to be reached in the scenes they played out, but they would otherwise be free to play those snapshots however they saw fit, and could have a chance to learn more about the setting in ways that fed into their main PCs’ decision making and views of the world.

Given that I expect to have some inexperienced players, my hopes with this are manifold; I wish to create spaces within the game for my players to come to terms with character death, to give them information about the setting which would otherwise require hefty info dumps, and to let them cut loose and experiment with decision making that doesn’t hamper their narrative goals or visions for their main characters. We’ll see how I do.

Cold War Spies in Blades in the Dark

Last winter I revisited a game idea I’d had: inspired by Saladin Ahmed’s suggestion to tell a spy story about spies from disadvantaged minor nations during the Cold War, I wanted a game that would push the dilemmas experienced by those intelligence agents to the forefront. How do you achieve your goals when you’re tiny pieces playing a much larger game? How do you make sure your nation isn’t simply eaten and discarded? How do you achieve your own goals, and how do you do all that while holding onto your humanity?

I knew that GURPS and a good storyteller *could* do all that, but I wanted something that felt more like Monsterhearts (more on my love for that game here) with mechanics that pushed those experiences to the forefront. I spent a while jotting down notes and trying to puzzle out how it would work. I came up with the idea of people choosing particular trainings for the characters, each relevant level of which would give them another die for a skill roll. I thought of measuring stress as a clock (Apocalypse World style) to denote the growing burden of keeping your cool while everything around you is going to hell.

And then I bought a copy of Blades in the Dark (and here) and realized that what I wanted had already been developed.

Now, admittedly, I don’t yet know of a BitD hack that does everything I am looking for. I also haven’t dug deep into the pile of BitD hacks out there, either in circulation or in development. But I no longer think I need to design all of this from the ground up. I think Blades in the Dark, with some modification, should work extremely well for what I want.

I still must find some way to reward continued player-player interactions, encouraging some collaboration without assuming that everyone is on the same side all the time. I don’t want to sacrifice the experience of questionable loyalties, self doubt, and second guessing your own judgement—but I also don’t want to make those things so grating or dominant in the game that it’s impossible to play without giving yourself ulcers. Similarly, as long as I’m letting player characters not all be on the same side all the time (or even all be part of the same Crew) I’ll need to find some way to either replace the Turf mechanic or modify it, and some way to alter the underlying Crew dynamic.

Suffice to say, there’s still a lot for me to figure out. But this looks fun, and maybe some of you would like to see it?

Please let me know if you’ve seen other Cold War spy BitD games. I’m thinking more Quiller Memorandum or The Witch Who Came In From The Cold, less James Bond.

Here’s a few of the other BitD hack resources I’ve found, though none do quite what I’m looking for:

(https://www.reddit.com/r/bladesinthedark/comments/8l5ysh/has_there_been_a_simply_spy_thriller_hack/)

(https://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3713405)

(https://itch.io/t/420201/share-your-projects-forged-in-the-dark)

(https://thysane.itch.io/the-spies-that-death-forgot)

And, of course, the Forged in the Dark forums:

(https://community.bladesinthedark.com/c/forged-in-the-dark)

Tidbits from The Hacker’s Guide to D&D

One panel I was on, The Hacker’s Guide to D&D, offered up several good nuggets that I’d like to share.

These are mostly not elaborate system hacks; the focus, rather, is on Continue reading

Binary Success and Failure in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

Many popular RPG systems measure success (or failure) as a simple binary. For example, by a strict reading of D&D 5e’s rules, either your character is successfully sneaky or they’re not: there’s no middle ground. There’s no benefit for being exceptionally stealthy, and there’s no real penalty for being exceptionally not-stealthy. Thus, there’re no degrees of success or failure. Every test is pass or fail.

This streamlines resolution of tests, and has the benefit of being fast and simple. But it also misses Continue reading

DIE, and other RPG development

I’ve been lucky to be part of several different people’s thoughts about RPGs in the past month.

At the beginning of April I was fortunate enough to playtest Kieron Gillen’s DIE RPG, which was Continue reading

Consent and Horror Gaming, Quick Thoughts

We, as people playing story-games and RPGs, often assume that our fellow players are on the same page as us. We assume that other players want the same things, have the same tolerances, fears, and interests, or at least don’t differ in ways which would surprise us. These assumptions are frequently wrong, to varying degrees. Worse, unless they’re examined these assumptions interfere with players building trust and giving informed consent.

Players’ trust, consent, and buy-in is important regardless of the game, but it’s critical in games dealing with uncomfortable material… like horror games. There’s a much larger conversation to be had around gaming and consent, but this piece will focus on consent in horror RPGs.

Quick note: when I say “players,” I include the storyteller. As the storyteller, you’re not only doing a bunch of work, you’re also participating in this story world that you’re creating with and for your fellow players—if people are pulling the game into territory you’re uncomfortable with or which you really don’t want to cover, that’s important too! Don’t sacrifice yourself for the sake of other players, or at least not any more than you want to.

Trust is a simple word and a complex subject. Too complex for me to cover in depth in one post. You can’t build consent without a modicum of trust between people involved; for consent to be meaningful, there must be trust that other people will respect the boundaries set and will act promptly and responsibly on feedback they receive. The depth of that trust governs how readily groups can achieve consent, and influences how willing people may be to experiment with their boundaries. One person may have varying levels of trust for different people or topics, and the only way to learn those levels is to ask and observe. So pay attention to those around you, ask for and give feedback freely and without judgement, validate reported discomfort, and resolve that discomfort to the preferences of the uncomfortable person.

Informed consent is another large subject, but at its simplest I’d call it agreement without coercion or surprises. I mention buy-in earlier because I think enthusiastic participation and shared investment is the obvious next step following informed consent; it’s important to have players’ consent, but you really want their buy-in as well. But without laying the groundwork with your players, you’ll only achieve consent and buy-in by luck; ideally, we want to get there by design.

What might that groundwork look like?

The first step is for someone (usually the storyteller) to offer or request a specific kind of game—for our purposes, we’ll assume that people want a horror game. There may be some back and forth here, until there’s a sufficient body of excited players to support a game.

The second step is when a storyteller should warn their players about what underlying kinds of discomfort are likely in the course of the story: a narrative version of “side effects may include,” where you might mention character death, fallible perceptions of reality, gaslighting, decaying sanity, things that go bump in the night, etc. Whatever is particular to your game. You (the storyteller) can also take suggestions from your players here! There’s an art to crafting that warning, given that many horror games revolve around the unknown: I strongly suggest that you touch on broad themes more than specific perils. The specific perils can come up in the next step.

Once you’ve warned folk about what underlying themes you may play with (and asked what themes they might like to add), ask what specific things they’d like to see in the game and what specific things they don’t want. Here the terminology of lines and veils is useful: lines are hard vetos against specific content showing up in a game, while veils are a request to fade-to-black around that content without excluding it entirely. There’s an excellent explanation of lines, veils, and some other safety mechanics here.

Double check to make sure that you’ve heard people’s requests, and that they’ve heard your underlying content warnings.

In the course of play, take breaks! Check in with people, preferably one on one, about how things are going for them and whether there’s anything that they’d like to update in terms of lines, veils, or other requests for the game. I suggest checking in one on one because it’s easy for people to unconsciously pressure others (or themselves) into not speaking up about discomfort. To quote from the link above, a good interaction might look like:

“Ouch!”

“Oops, sorry. Let’s fix that.”

You can also use those check-ins as a means of getting useful feedback on your storytelling, or on the character you’re playing. These are good opportunities to discuss bleed, or any other things that have come up for people through the course of the game. It’s also worthwhile asking the group as a whole to check-in, so long as you’re addressing people’s needs and concerns individually as well.

And remember that trust, consent, and buy-in are all things which can change! None of those established preferences are set in stone, and people’s needs may change. Use safety mechanics (some linked here) to make sure that people don’t feel that their consent has been abused, or their trust diminished. Stoplight check-in vocabulary (green = more of this please, yellow = this is on the edge don’t push further, red = NOPE) is valuable for making this process easier, and having something on the table that people can use during scenes without interrupting game is very helpful. That on-table tool could be an X-card, or several differently colored circles.

Just because you’re playing a horror game doesn’t mean that you should run roughshod over your fellow players. The experience of horror should be in the game and in response to the game, not because your friends were assholes to you in real life.

p.s. the earliest mention of Lines and Veils I could find while writing this today was here, in this thread from 2004.

Scope, Scale, & Stakes in Genres: Detective Noir

I wrote about Scope, Scale, and Stakes recently, but I didn’t give clear examples of how they shift during the course of a story. I’ll try to give a more concrete account of that here, with a focus on one particular kind of story or genre.

Let’s try the genre of detective noir. Continue reading

Setting Expectations for Rulings in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

Somehow, despite reading hundreds of thousands of words on how to run roleplaying games since the age of twelve, I don’t clearly remember any RPG book giving me this advice:

Explicitly set expectations for your group around how you, the storyteller, will adjudicate rolls, rulings, and mechanical resolutions.

It’s totally possible that I simply glossed over this advice when I did read it. But it’s important enough advice that I’m going to devote more words to it here.

Setting expectations explicitly is helpful because Continue reading

Milestones, XP Rewards, & Training Your Players, Longer Thoughts

MurderHoboRPG_flowchart

The flowchart of the “murder hobo.”

Game systems, role-playing game systems, are a set of constraints on cooperative imaginative play that are designed to facilitate making up stories together. The constraints they impose create boundaries around the kinds of stories that you can tell within those game systems. This doesn’t make “resistant play” impossible (using resistant play as one might use the term resistant reading), but any system will tend to make a particular kind of play or story experience easier to support than others.

I’ve discussed related thoughts previously, in the context of “flavor.”

But what about experience points, or character advancement?

What about the game’s systems for rewarding players?

Continue reading