The importance of taking breaks for improvisational GMing

This weekend I ran a session of Blades in the Dark for my group, and realized the importance of breaks when improvising.

In general, I feel like I’m not great at improvising. I have a tendency to spout things that don’t make a lot of sense when closely examined, or that push the fiction in weird directions that are hard to reel back in. This weekend, I hadn’t prepped as much for the score as I would have liked. The high concept was that the crew would try to take Nightmarket’s Jewelry District as turf from their main rival. I had outlined some hooks and some complications from rivals, but didn’t have the energy to go into detail.

During the session, the crew’s Spider rolled a critical on a gather info to schmooze info from a flunky. I looked down at my notes and froze. What I had written down was way too complicated and hard to make visible: the jeweler in question had allied with the rival crew because he had a secret past they helped bury. If they buried the evidence, how was my crew supposed to find it? At the last second, I improvised that the jeweler acted as a fence for the rivals. The players immediately jumped on that hook as the focus for their score. Which meant it was something I hadn’t prepared at all.

Once the players came up with their plan, I called a short break for “loading time” to go over it. My nerves were jangling and my mind was going in circles. It took a few minutes to calm down enough that I could think through the situation. I returned and we continued.

The plan was to find out when stolen goods were about to be delivered, and tip off the Bluecoats so they could catch them red-handed. The first part went smoothly due to several rolls of 6 on key actions. That put me in a pickle. If I let the plan play out as they had described, the score would be trivial. On the other hand, they had been taking defensive actions, so I didn’t want to invalidate all that effort. I called for another break.

During the break I went over the two options in my head. I decided that they had raised enough suspicion to put the rival crew on the defensive, and that since the rivals were also competent scoundrels, they would have contingencies for risky situations like handing over stolen goods. However, the rivals weren’t so suspicious that the whole thing was a trap: there would indeed be stolen goods for the Bluecoats to catch them with. I decided that was a good compromise that would provide plausible opposition without invalidating their preparation.

From there, the rest of the score played out wonderfully. I froze again when the Slide revealed his disguise, trying to think of a clever contingency. I couldn’t think of anything really clever, so I did the first thing I thought of, which was to have them drop a smoke bomb. There’s a suggestion for improvising, which is to say the first thing you think of because that’s usually something that follows naturally from what’s been established. In this case, “suddenly smoke bomb” made sense to everyone and gave me room to think of next moves as the crew reacted.

Overall, the session went well, and recognizing that I needed time to back off and think over things was key to that.

RPG Tax Review: Elizabeth Chaipraditkul’s Familiars of Terra

What is it?

Familiars of Terra is a fantasy RPG where everyone has an animal familiar, similar to The Golden Compass or Pokemon. Players create and play both Seekers–humans driven to pursue goals that lead to adventure–and their familiars.

Why did I buy it?

I love having animal companions in games. The setting’s tone is complicated but hopeful, a rare combination. I wanted to support a newish designer. I wanted to see how the card-based system worked out.

First impressions?

It has a “This book belongs to” frame in the front! There are little touches like that in the book that make it charming.

The book starts with a “Welcome” section that introduces the setting, tone, and premise. The setting is similar to our modern world, but everyone has an animal familiar and everything is powered by green energy. There was a “Vast War” about fifty years ago, and the world is still dealing with the aftereffects. There are five playable nations; the sixth nation was the aggressor in the Vast War and has since enclosed itself behind a wall. Each of the playable nations is struggling with problems in the wake of the war. I’m impressed that none of them map neatly onto real-world nations, contributing to the feel that this is a complex world and not a simple allegory.

The next chapter is Character Creation, which includes both Seeker and Familiar creation. In the setting, Familiars are more powerful than humans, so humans don’t carry weapons and any fights are between Familiars. (Like Pokemon!) Seekers have a home nation, a Calling (their core motivation), a related Promise (an activity or urge related to the Calling), Attribute scores (Agility, Awareness, Charm, Might, Wit), Titles (epithets that grant perks called Wisdoms) and/or Trophies (rare items that grant powers called Quirks). Familiars have Attribute scores, Traits (deviations from their basic animal form) and Powers. The process is clearly explained, with lists of options for Callings, Promises, Titles, Trophies, Traits, and Powers. There’s a section in the GM chapter about coming up with new options, but the existing ones are flavorful and help set the tone and fill in the setting.

The system uses playing cards. I think each player and GM needs their own deck of cards, but in my skim I didn’t see anything that specified. Cards have numeric values from 1 (Ace) to 13 (King). Simple checks have you draw the top card of the deck, add a bonus or penalty if the GM says to, and compare the value to the relevant attribute. If it’s equal or lower, you succeed; if it’s higher, you fail. In opposed checks, you and your opponent each draw a card, add your relevant attributes, and compare. Highest wins, ties are possible. So far, the system could have used dice.

Combat is where the card-based system shines. Each participant draws a hand of cards, then they take turns in descending order of Agility. Each turn, you pick an opponent, then both of you play cards face-down, use any pre-reveal Powers, reveal the cards, use any post-reveal Powers, and finally resolve who deals damage to whom. Powers range from “Play one extra card this turn” to “Look at the top 10 cards of your deck and reorder them.” It looks to make for interesting hand and resource (Power) management, replacing the spatial-tactical management of combat in D&D 3+. Neat!

The next big section goes over the different nations. I skimmed this, but it each nation has a large problem facing it, and there are little adventure seeds scattered around. It also describes the nation of Plinth, the “bad guys” (they started the Vast War), including some ideas to make dealing with them into a campaign.

The last section is the GM section, and it’s packed with helpful stuff. There’s guidance on running the game, maintaining the tone, running for children, and creating new perks. But a lot of it is about setting up scenarios and creating NPCs. There are a few detailed scenario hooks, then several random tables you can use to generate your own. The NPC section describes how to create NPCs depending on how important they are, but the best part is the collection of generic stat blocks for different NPC and group archetypes–including both humans and familiars–ready to be skinned and dropped into the game.

Overall, Familiars of Terra looks like a great entry for all-ages gaming. I think it fills a niche similar to Ryuutama, a generally heart-warming game with aspects of more traditional adventuring RPGs.

RPG Tax Review: Jacob S. Kellog’s Journey Away

What is it?

Journey Away is a light, non-challenge-based fantasy RPG by Jacob S. Kellog. In it, you play a group of friends from a small village exploring a world where magic recently appeared. The PDF is available from DriveThruRPG, with a POD option.

Why did I buy it?

The tone is similar to Ryuutama, which I love. I was curious what a non-challenge-based system looks like. I wanted to support a new designer who is interested in making nonviolent games.

First impressions

The book was shorter than I expected. The system is very light, and I think the game as a whole is targeted to groups who enjoy supported freeform. That’s a play style where the group mostly roleplays freely, but want a system to dip into for inspiration or when stalled.

The mechanical part of character creation involves writing down a list of character traits and assigning them die sizes based on how important they are to the character. Like Fate Aspects, traits should be things that could either help or hurt depending on the situation. Traits are grouped into five categories to aid player brainstorming, but there’s no mechanical difference between them. The game recommends you come up with at least two traits in each category (persona, tendencies, experience, and quirks) for a total of ten. I think this system will work best if you already have a good idea of the character you want to play.

The non-challenge-based system has you gather a dice pool from traits that may provide advantages in the situation. The GM gathers a dice pool of traits that may provide complications, with extra dice if there are other circumstances. Each pool is rolled, then players arrange the dice into pairs with one die from each pool. If the higher die is from the player’s pool, the pair counts as a “boon.” If the higher die is from the GM’s pool, it’s a “complication.” The players to the left and right of the main player then narrate the good things that happened based on the count of boons, and the bad things that happened based on the count of complications. Assembling the dice pools helps everyone get a concrete picture of what’s going on in the scene, and the possible outcomes are complex. The system could be fiddly if it were being rolled often, but it looks like it’s intended to be used maybe once a scene. There’s a couple of pages of advice on narrating, with reminders that rolling is about “what interesting things happen?” rather than success or failure.

The last quarter of the book goes into detail on the setting. There’s a map of the region the characters are from, with sections sketching out the sub-regions. Each section calls out one interesting fact about that region.  This is the part of the book I wish were more developed, because all those region facts spark great scenario ideas.

Overall, this is a game targeted at a niche audience, which I am not part of, but which I think will love it. I think more setting detail could broaden the appeal of the product–I want to know more about the world of Adhara!

RPG Tax Review: The Companion’s Tale by Laura Simpson

What is it?

The Companion’s Tale is a collaborative storytelling and mapmaking game game by Laura Simpson of Sweet Potato Press. In the game, you act as historians and unreliable narrators telling the story of a great Hero during a time of change. The game is packaged like a board game, with three decks of cards, rules reference cards, and a booklet-style rulebook. The base game supports 3-4 people. There are variants included for two players, and for 6-8. The pre-orders have shipped, and the plan is for the game to be available for order from Indie Press Revolution.

How did it get my attention / Why did I buy it?

I played an awesome session of it at a con, facilitated by the designer. I missed the Kickstarter, but was able to pre-order it on Backerkit.

What are my first impressions?

The cards are gorgeous. The three decks are the Theme, Companion Archetype, and Companion Face cards. The Theme and Archetype decks are standard poker-card size, but the Face cards are larger Dixit-sized cards that show off the evocative art. The Companion’s face takes up most of each card, but the details in the clothing, adornments, and backgrounds provide springboards for inventing stories.

The first third of the rulebook is how to play the basic game. Then comes a short section of facilitator tips. The remainder (more than half!) consists of 11 game variants.

The basic game rules are clearly explained. The facilitator tips give useful guidance about how to make the session go smoothly and bring out the most interesting aspects of the system.

There are so many variants, and as with the Romance Trilogy, they are gold for a game designer. There are two variants that change the supported player count: Duet gives rules for two players, and the Diaspora variant I playtested supports 6-8 players. Unfortunately, there are no specific rules for five players, the size of my regular gaming group. The remaining variants cover an array of themes and settings, from first contact between cultures to magical girls. One technique used to good effect in many variants is curating the Theme and Companion decks, ensuring that certain motifs come up through the game. In the Lovers’ Tale variant, where all Companions once loved the Hero, the “Love” Theme card and “Lover” Companion card are pulled from the decks and placed on the table for everyone to incorporate during their turns. It’s such a simple change, but it sparks ideas for other variants along those lines, or even randomly creating a variant. The A Tale of Villainy variant, where the “Hero” is viewed as a villain, has you curate a separate villainous Theme deck, ensuring dark Themes like Corruption, Punishment, and Vengeance are drawn during the game. The most detailed variant is Guardians of the Arcane City, which converts the game to tell the story of urban fantasy magical girls. It goes over curating the decks, gives new initial world-building questions, tweaks every phase of the game, and transforms Act 3 into a final showdown with the evil Nemesis. It’s a great starting point for making your own hacks.

2018 Retrospective

On the first day of 2019, I’m looking back at my year in gaming and blogging.

Gaming

My regular gaming group had ten sessions of Blades in the Dark this year. I GMed two and played a crew member in eight. It’s been interesting seeing the variety of GM and player styles at the table, and the different approaches to session prep. I’m back to GMing next session, and figuring out a way to pick up all the dangling plot threads from my last time at the wheel.

I made it to two cons this year, and played a mix of board games and RPGs. I got to playtest a few RPGs: Stephanie Bryant’s Last Monster on Earth, MonkeyFun Games’ A Town Called Malice, and Daedalum AP’s Roar of Alliance. I always learn something from playtesting other people’s games, whether it’s about the game itself or the process surrounding it.

Blogging

2018 is the year I decided to get serious about posting to this blog. I made 19 posts this year. My three most popular posts:

Blades in the Dark is my trendiest topic, followed by Ryuutama. Still, with a total of 29 posts and an average of 7 visitors a day (many of which were me), there’s not a lot of data to go on. If I were optimizing for visits I would go in for more Blades content. Since I’m currently one of three rotating GMs in a Blades campaign, that seems likely to happen anyway.

This year I also started paying my RPG Tax, an idea from Ray Otus. I am woefully behind, but I have drastically reduced the amount I spend at Bundle of Holding. I frequently fell into the trap where I wasn’t up to  reading all of my purchase, so I read nothing. For next year, I’m going to reduce my threshold for what counts as “read” to include quickly leafing-through and commenting on what jumps out at me.

At one point in November I was able to finish three posts in quick succession. Instead of posting them immediately, I scheduled them for advance posting. That gave me more time to work on my next post, which was much appreciated. I’m trying for a weekly posting schedule this year, but with a buffer of scheduled posts. This means that some of my RPG Tax reviews may go up well after I first read them, but hopefully this will be more maintainable.

Here’s to a great gaming 2019!

RPG Tax Review: Posthuman Pathways by Jason Pitre

What is it?

Posthuman Pathways is a GM-full roleplaying/storytelling game about the impact of technology on society, as seen through the lens of three characters. It comes as five folded pamphlets in a cardboard envelope. One of the pamphlets unfolds to become a play mat, one describes setup and character creation, and the other three give details about the game roles players take. The game is for three people, needs 14+ index cards, and claims it will take 3-4 hours. There’s a PWYW PDF version at DriveThruRPG.

How did it get my attention / Why did I buy it?

I received Posthuman Pathways for free as a reward for participating in the Genesis of Legend Emerging Voices Challenge. I’m embarrassed it’s taken me so long to get around to reviewing it!

What are my first impressions?

My very first impression was surprise at the unusual format of the game. The envelope of pamphlets makes for a compact form factor, and I think the breakdown actually works for the game. One pamphlet becomes the play mat, one has the game setup instructions, and the last three pamphlets detail the three game roles. All pamphlets except the play mat also include the overall game structure and rules. They’re small enough to be easy to hand around as you rotate roles.

During game setup, you prepare the Context (locations) and Pressures.  Each player creates a character, deciding on a name and their four drives: Status, Identity, Vision, and Ritual. For each drive, name what they value most in that category. e.g. for Status, name a social standing or political position they are desperate to attain.

The game consists of three eras with three scenes each, plus brief transitions in the middle and epilogues. The eras are the Human Era, the Transhuman Era, and the Posthuman Era. Each scene, each player takes on one of the three rotating roles: Trailblazer, Voyager, or Guide. The Trailblazer sets the scene, the Voyager plays their character, and the Guide provides antagonism. For the next scene, pass the booklets around so the Trailblazer becomes the new Voyager, the Voyager becomes the new Guide, and the Guide becomes the new Trailblazer.

The first Trailblazer kicks off the game by answering the question “What augmentation technology changed everything?” At the end of the scene, they write a new question for the next Trailblazer. If they’re stumped, the game includes suggested questions, which all push the game towards exploring the societal and cultural ramifications of new technologies. The Trailblazer also sets the broad context of the dilemma facing the current character, and then hands narration off to the Voyager and the Guide.

The Guide’s main responsibility is to provide pressure and antagonism to the Voyager, ultimately forcing them to choose whether to sacrifice one of their drives to get what they want. At the end of the three eras, a character may be down to a single drive. The Trailblazer/Guide split makes the game easier to play by distributing the usual GM responsibilities across two people, and allowing them to focus on specific aspects of the fiction.

After every three scenes, the current era ends. After the first two, time jumps forward to the next era, and each player gets to narrate a short interlude about it. After the end of the Posthuman Era, each player narrates an epilgoue for their character.

The game structure lends itself to big idea social science fiction, grounded by focusing on the lives of three specific characters. The Trailblazer questions and pressure to sacrifice drives encourage exploring the social impact of technology. A possible drawback is that in order to keep things moving and focus on the big changes, there’s not a lot of time spent on each character.  People who like to really spend time with and inhabit characters may find it unsatisfying. In that way, Posthuman Pathways is similar to Microscope. I think the focus on specific characters and the role breakdown make it easier than Microscope’s “hot seat.” I’m really curious about playing it, but it’s rare for me to wind up with exactly three people up for playing an RPG. I may see about finding a group online, or using it to outline a novel!

Roll Difficulty in Blades in the Dark

(Update 2018/12/11: Added details on “other consequences”: reduced effect, complication, lost opportunity, worse position)

As a GM, setting difficulties in Blades in the Dark is different from games like D&D, and it can take some getting used to.

When GMing D&D, when a player rolls for something, you the GM decide what the chances of success or failure are. You sometimes define what happens on success or failure, but for most rolls, the meanings of “success” and “failure” are defined in the rule book. The simplest way to represent a harder situation is to reduce the chance of success.

It’s the opposite in Blades. As a GM, you decide the success outcome (Effect) and failure outcome (Position), but the chances of success are determined by the player. To represent a harder situation, you need to think about the whole situation and what makes it harder:

Does it have severe consequences for failure? Worse Position.

Are the PC’s actions unlikely to have an impact on the situation? Worse or no Effect.

Do they need to face danger to even try? Require a Resistance roll before they can take the action.

For a given Position, you can tune the difficulty by changing the consequences for 4-5 and 1-3 results. Roughly from hardest to softest:

  1. Harm
  2. Lost opportunity
  3. Other consequences: Complication, worse position, reduced effect
  4. Clock to Harm
  5. Clock to complication

I rate Harm the hardest because it mechanically affects the player’s future chances of success, and takes the longest to recover from. The harshness of other consequences depends heavily on the context. I rate losing the opportunity harsher than others because it closes off player options and can result in the game stalling. This is why in the rules reference, you only see it in the 1-3 results for Risky and Desperate position.

Like Harm, worse position and reduced effect have mechanical consequences, but unlike Harm they’re ephemeral. Worse position is a key way to escalate the action and get the PCs into trouble. Reduced effect is the easiest to think about as a GM, but can be frustrating for the other players and lead to a lot of “I try that again.” Complications are a wildcard that let you introduce any other potential dangers into the score.

Clocks to Harm or complications are the softest consequences because they’re delayed. Depending on how the Score goes, the threat may never materialize. Even if it does, the players have had ample time to watch it develop and prepare to deal with it.

Keep in mind this is a fuzzy ranking. It’s possible to come up with a consequence that the player rates as worse than Harm depending on the situation. Long-term complications, like increased Heat or dinging the crew’s status with a faction, can be worse than Harm as they force the crew to deal with the fallout using precious Downtime actions. If the crew is racing to complete a clock before their rivals complete theirs, reduced effect (tick once instead of twice) might be enough to make them lose the race.

Another way to tune difficulty is by changing how effective Resistance rolls are. This also affects the feel of the game. For an easier, more heroic feel, let a resistance roll completely negate Harm and other consequences. For a harsher, grittier feel, have resistance rolls only lessen the Harm or consequence.

Blades in the Dark Resistance Roll Stress Values

Someone on G+ asked about the expected Stress values for Resistance rolls depending on the size of your dice pool, so I calculated them.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1npGJbX4salI56zjyxOT6OCwMcwgq9MDcRwbJYCVIkr8/edit#gid=0

At 3 dice, on average you’ll spend just under 1 Stress

At 4 dice, you have a ~52% chance of not spending Stress, with a ~13% chance that you’ll actually gain back a Stress.

I first tried to tackle this in Anydice, but my skills are rudimentary. I wound up writing a Python script to count the possibilities for each Stress outcome.

import itertools

def stress_outcomes(dice):
    counts = {1: 0, 2: 0, 3: 0, 4: 0, 5: 0, 6: 0, 66: 0}
    all_rolls = list(itertools.product([1,2,3,4,5,6], repeat=6))
    for roll in all_rolls:
        if max(roll) == 1:
            counts[1] += 1
        elif max(roll) == 2:
            counts[2] += 1
        elif max(roll) == 3:
            counts[3] += 1
        elif max(roll) == 4:
            counts[4] += 1
        elif max(roll) == 5:
            counts[5] += 1
        elif max(roll) == 6:
            if roll.count(6) > 1:
                counts[66] += 1
            else:
                counts[6] += 1
    print("\n%d dice" % dice)
    print(counts)
    total_count = len(all_rolls)
    print(total_count)
    print("\n".join([("= %d/%d\t= %2.1f" % (count, total_count, 100.0*float(count)/total_count)) for count in counts.values()]))

for i in range(3, 7):
    stress_outcomes(i)

Output:

3 dice
{1: 1, 2: 63, 3: 665, 4: 3367, 5: 11529, 6: 18750, 66: 12281}
46656
= 1/46656       = 0.0
= 63/46656      = 0.1
= 665/46656     = 1.4
= 3367/46656    = 7.2
= 11529/46656   = 24.7
= 18750/46656   = 40.2
= 12281/46656   = 26.3

4 dice
{1: 1, 2: 63, 3: 665, 4: 3367, 5: 11529, 6: 18750, 66: 12281}
46656
= 1/46656       = 0.0
= 63/46656      = 0.1
= 665/46656     = 1.4
= 3367/46656    = 7.2
= 11529/46656   = 24.7
= 18750/46656   = 40.2
= 12281/46656   = 26.3

5 dice
{1: 1, 2: 63, 3: 665, 4: 3367, 5: 11529, 6: 18750, 66: 12281}
46656
= 1/46656       = 0.0
= 63/46656      = 0.1
= 665/46656     = 1.4
= 3367/46656    = 7.2
= 11529/46656   = 24.7
= 18750/46656   = 40.2
= 12281/46656   = 26.3

6 dice
{1: 1, 2: 63, 3: 665, 4: 3367, 5: 11529, 6: 18750, 66: 12281}
46656
= 1/46656       = 0.0
= 63/46656      = 0.1
= 665/46656     = 1.4
= 3367/46656    = 7.2
= 11529/46656   = 24.7
= 18750/46656   = 40.2
= 12281/46656   = 26.3

Types of Fun and Blades in the Dark GM/Play styles

I’m one of the rotating GMs in an ongoing Blades in the Dark campaign. We started with two GMs, me and E., and last session a third GM, W., started. It’s been interesting to see the differences in GMing styles, how those map to Types of Fun, and how they’re supported by the system.

When I GM Blades, I focus on providing my players with the Fantasy of being competent thieves, and to a lesser extent, to give them a compelling Narrative that wraps up nicely within the session. The focus on Fantasy is a tricky balancing act: to showcase their competence, and to make the victory feel earned, there must be some amount of challenge. But if there’s too much challenge, the crew might fail the Score, which would violate the fantasy of being competent. I’ve realized that my Scores are often easy because I’m leaning too hard on the “they must succeed” side. My score prep method also grows out of this focus: the list of potential challenges allows me to throw them in as a pacing mechanic, and dial them back down when it feels like the Score should wind down and the players have faced enough adversity.

Blades as a system has mixed support for this mode of play. On the plus side, the flashback and resist consequence mechanics are all about showing the characters’ competence. The playbook special abilities all give unique opportunities for characters to shine. The Score as a main unit of play gives clear goals with a reset in between, so messing up one Score doesn’t necessarily mess up the overarching quest. It’s also handy as a pacing mechanism for making sure each session has a satisfying conclusion. The XP triggers encourage players to bring up backgrounds and relationships in a way that makes an interesting narrative.

On the minus side, every Blades action roll comes with the possibility of things going horribly wrong. Some of the players in our group come at the game with a focus on Fantasy or Challenge, and they try their best to avoid triggering action rolls for that reason. This can bog the game down with long discussions about which course of action has the lowest risk, and lead to some weaseling.

My impression of E.’s GMing style is that he focuses on providing Discovery and Challenge types of fun. He recently finished GMing an arc that hammered home the differences to me. The crew was supposed to steal some blackmail evidence from a relative of Lord Scurlock. We successfully broke into her house and didn’t find it, but found the portal to her magical bunker. We got a key to the portal and broke into the bunker, but still didn’t find it, but found other valuable possessions. So we bargained those back to her, and she revealed that her blackmail material was hidden in a house taken over by an eldritch horror. We’d picked up some random clues about it earlier but had been so focused on robbing her directly that we ignored them. For a game focused on Fantasy and Narrative, this would be a failure on the GM’s part. For a game focused on Discovery and Challenge, this was a failure on the players’ part. We didn’t investigate enough to discover the secret of the horror house, and instead jumped to conclusions: we failed the Challenge. Meanwhile, the GM stayed true to the facts established in his prep and the Challenge he laid out for us.

Blades has pretty good support for this style of play. For Challenge, the core Action roll mechanic ensures that there’s a constant incoming stream of obstacles, while the action ratings and playbook abilities give the players many tools to address them. All the mechanics that involve Stress make an interesting resource management challenge. On the downside, Challenge-focused players may feel Action rolls are too risky and avoid engaging the system. For Discovery, there are two pages on Gathering Information, a specific roll type for it, and various perks and abilities that give bonuses to it. On the downside, it leans on the players to remember to Gather Information in situations that may not immediately scream “you need more info.” And by necessity, it also relies on the GM to give good answers.

I think W.’s GMing style is closer to mine than E.’s, but it’s too early to tell. There’s enough overlap in the way these types of fun show up in a game that it can take several sessions to realize there’s a difference. If the obstacles are well-tuned, you can’t tell whether the session was focused on Fantasy of competence or Challenge. A Narrative-oriented game with secrets will give players a strong sense of Discovery as they find them.

I think the designer of Blades focused on Narrative and Expression. Scores, complications, stress, and vices all provide avenues to explore and reveal character. Most of the system is about getting characters into trouble so they have to answer the question of what they will give up to succeed. I think our Slide player’s preference falls closest to this, but they’re outnumbered!

RPG Tax Review: Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy Part 2: Shooting the Moon

What is it?

Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy is a collection of updated and revised editions of three of her games, Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon, and Under My Skin. It also includes three “Companion Games,” which are based on those three but have significant changes. For the purposes of paying my RPG Tax, I’m treating this as a bundle product and reviewing the games separately.

Shooting the Moon is the second game in the trilogy. It’s a game for three players who take the roles of two suitors competing for the hand of a beloved.

How did it get my attention?

Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon were on my radar from Forge discussions way back. I was intrigued by games that departed so far from typical RPG fare, and could be played with only two people.

Why did I actually buy it?

I missed the original release announcement for the Romance Trilogy, but saw a later announcement when it was on some kind of special sale, I think for Valentine’s. I had Breaking the Ice from way back and not really gotten to play it, but the inclusion of Shooting the Moon and the less-romantic Companion Games made me decide to get it.

What are my first impressions?

Character creation starts with sketching out the Beloved by naming Attributes, defines the Suitors in relation and opposition to those Attributes, and ends by fleshing out all three characters. Play alternates turns between the Suitors and the Beloved. In each Suitor’s turn, the active Suitor approaches the Beloved, while the other Suitor’s player provides opposition. This plays into the rivalry of the suitors. During the Beloved’s turn, they create a challenge for both Suitors.

During the various turns, you can get more dice for later rolls and for your goal by allowing other players to make trouble for or change your character. This incentivizes having characters that actually change over the course of the game, and that get into trouble, rather than having static characters who don’t face hardship.

The rules overall seem fiddlier than Breaking the Ice. I think this is because of the asymmetry in roles, with the Suitors and Beloved having different functions and responsibilities.

Like in Breaking the Ice, the Strategy & Tips section is a goldmine of useful advice, and helpful for designers trying to understand the game.  The Alone Against the World variant adapts Shooting the Moon for use as a solo game about two Seekers with conflicting Goals traveling a dangerous land. It includes evocative tables of prompts and questions, and has you map out the Seekers’ movements across the land. The Versus Nature variant is the longest. It also involves two Seeker players pitted against a third playing Nature, but has rules for up to seven players. There are six possible roles players may take, and it’s a fascinating example of how to divide player responsibilities in a GMless game.

Overall, it’s a worthy sequel or follow-up to Breaking the Ice, especially for anyone with an interest in asymmetric GMless games.