Prepping Scores for Blades in the Dark

I’ve co-GMing a campaign of Blades in the Dark, and one thing I struggle with is prep. I know it gives you tools to improvise scores, but my improvised scores tend to be cakewalks as I struggle to come up with suitable obstacles on the fly. I’ve also had several sessions where events meant most of my prep went unused. But for the last session, I tried something new with prep, and it went swimmingly.

First off, it helped that the crew decided before the session what score to pursue. That meant I could focus on a single score instead of preparing two or three scores in the hopes the crew picked one of them. We ran the score selection between sessions as part of an email chain with a short interlude by voice chat, but it could also be done Ryuutama-style as a session closer. The score was to steal an artifact called the Tangle of Bones from the Church of Ecstasy, with a warning that a rival crew was after the same artifact.

The prep method I settled on is inspired by John Rogers’ Crime World supplement for Fate, and The Covetous Poet’s Location Crafter. The high-level summary is to divide the score into zones, then prepare possible obstacles for each zone.

For heists, Crime World describes three key concepts. The Score is your target, whatever valuable you’re trying to steal. The Box is what directly protects the target, and the House is the building or area surrounding the Box.

Start by detailing the target. Why does the crew want it? Who is the current owner and why do they want it? If anyone else wants it, why? Decide on the target, at least at a high level, before going to the next step. For the Tangle of Bones, I generated a random prompt for its power, which was “Create Illness.” Since the crew’s client was a demon, the rival crew was a cult worshiping a demon, and the Church of Ecstasy researches demons and immortality, I decided that a demon could use the artifact to spread a plague that caused infected people to fall under its influence.

Next, think about the Box. What protects the target? What prevents people from accessing the target? How are intruders detected? What prevents people from just walking off with the target? What are some troubles or weaknesses of the Box? Decide the high level concept for the Box, and write down several ideas for the other questions. My high concept for the Box was a secret lab under a Church of Ecstasy.

Then detail the House. Divide it into three zones:

  1. The public areas. For my Score, the public parts of the Church where regular services are held. I decided on Whitecrown so they weren’t breaking into the Church’s main stronghold, and because it’s next to Doskvol Academy, where some of the crew has history.
  2. The secured areas between the public areas and the Box. The private areas of the church where only priests are allowed.
  3. The threshold to the Box. The secret labs under the church.

Make a table with four columns, one for each of the zones and one for the Box. In each column, write out possible obstacles and complications for the zone. Since I was prepping a score with rivals, I merged zones 2 and 3 into one column and added a fourth one for the rivals. Optional: sort the obstacles from easiest or most likely to least likely.

If your group likes playing with maps–mine does–sketch some rough maps for each zone. I picked an unlabeled building from the Whitecrown map. Then I looked up a few real church plans for ideas, and roughed out the zones.*

In play, whenever it seems like the crew should face an obstacle or someone rolls a complication, look up the list for the zone they’re in, pick one, and cross it off. If you sorted the lists, you can roll a d6 and use that obstacle, skipping any that are crossed off. If time is running short or the session is winding down, stop pulling obstacles from the list and deal with what’s already established.

For this score, part of the background situation prep was finding a reason for the rivals and crew to break in at the same time. Since services at the main cathedral involve dissolving spirits, I decided there would be an exclusive spirit destruction service/party at the Whitecrown location, held in the private areas of the Church. That would shake up regular security patrols and mean strangers wandering in the private areas, making it a golden opportunity for both crews.

This is the final table I came up with, marked with the obstacles I wound up using. The crew came in by a different route than the spirit destruction party, so most of those went unused. They were also most interested in the labs area, so I used more obstacles from that area than others. Overall, the score flowed smoothly without the awkward pauses where I rack my brain for a suitable obstacle. The players were engaged, and felt they could visualize what was going on better than any previous score I’d run.

Whitecrown Church Public Areas Church Private and Secured Areas Secret Lab / Vault Rivals
  • Need invitations for exclusive spirit destruction event
  • Guard checking guest list
  • (Spider) personal rival is there, will recognize him
  • (Whisper) Rival Whisper is there, recognizes him
  • Spirit destruction event requires  interaction from group and professions of faith
  • Rival Spider notices the crew and starts calling attention to them at the spirit destruction party, e.g. volunteer them for participation
  • *Door to labs area is hidden in secret passage, need to know sequence of brick/book presses to get in
  • Need to find which lab has artifact
  • Need to find location of vault with more immediately sellable  stuff
  • Researcher going to nearby lab who’s familiar with everyone that’s supposed to be working here
  • Artifact container is bulky and obvious, if any guards see it they’ll want to know what’s up
  • *Lab is guarded by a hull that wants proof that you’re an authorized user of the lab to open the door (Pick 2+: smell, sound, sight, knowledge)
  • Hull remembers everyone who comes through (+Heat unless addressed)
  • *Two keys needed to open valuables safe ether clean chamber
  • *Keys are on opposite sides and need to turn at same time
  • Research notes are ciphered
  • *Artifact is contagious in the ghost field and needs special container for carrying
  • *Artifact is in an ether clean chamber, need to remove it into container without letting ghost field in (Like those biohazard / chemical chambers with the glove sleeves)
  • Entire lab is an ether clean room, airlock style so you need to suit up (and suits are bulky / hard to move in)
  • Vault has combination lock
  • *Vault is set up like safety deposit boxes, need to crack individually to get contents
  • Rival Whisper alerts the rest of cult that the crew is here
  • Rivals find crew Whisper due to pendant
  • *A guard knocked out by rival Cutter or rival Lurk wakes up as PC passes
  • Rivals found the artifact first and are making their escape
  • Rivals corner whoever has the artifact and try to get it:
  • Cutter – by force
  • Spider – by fast-talking / distracting
  • Lurk – by distracting  / stealth
  • Whisper – summon ghost?

 

RPG Tax

I’ve decided to copy Ray Otus‘s resolution to pay an “RPG tax” on any new games bought: immediately read them and post commentary. The posts have this structure:

  1. How did it get my attention?
  2. Why did I actually buy it?
  3. What are my first impressions?
  4. What are my second and/or post-play impressions?

When I have time, I’ll also go through my backlog of games to read and post about those.

RPG Tax: Of the Woods: Lonely Games of Imagination

Edit: Link to post describing the RPG Tax: http://games.nightstaff.net/2018/04/01/rpg-tax/ . In short, it’s a resolution to immediately read and comment on new RPG products that I buy or otherwise acquire.

What is it?

Of the Woods: Lonely Games of Imagination is a collection of lonely games curated by Brie Sheldon. “Lonely games” consist of some scene-setting text, then a series of questions to develop the situation. By answering the questions, you create a story.

How did it get my attention?

I follow Brie Sheldon on G+, so I saw the initial announcement when it was released. More recently, there was a thread about small games where someone brought it up.

Why did I actually buy it?

The recent thread reminded me that I meant to check it out, it was only $5 with proceeds going to The Trevor Project, and I’m trying to support more niche creators. I also keep thinking about doing more solo roleplaying, and this looked like a nice bite-sized way to get started.

What are my first impressions?

Haunting. Evocative. The prose snippets and questions sketch a setting and situation with only a handful of words. Some games resonated with me more than others. Hollow by Kimberly Lam is my current favorite. The games are ordered so they flow together. The last two, I Believe by Chris Bennett and Home Again by Adam McConnaughey, each add an extra mechanic.

What are my second and/or post-play impressions?

The questions about relationships and the first-person viewpoint made the game feel unexpectedly personal. I’m not sure about sharing the story that mentions a mother with my real mother, for example. I think if I paused after reading the initial text and before answering the questions to form an idea of my character, I would have a stronger alibi in place and less emotional bleed-through. But the power of the games comes from that personal place.

Also, I want to write one now.

Ryuutama Travel Encounters

Diversions (d12):

    1. A wishing well with a dragon statue on top
    2. A viewing point with a breathtaking vista of the scenery
    3. Some hot springs
    4. An abandoned, overgrown cottage
    5. A well-maintained shrine to a local deity or spirit
    6. An abandoned shrine to a forgotten deity
    7. A slow, shallow part of the nearby river or stream where you can bathe or wash things
    8. A good fishing spot
    9. A local farm or ranch with food to sell
    10. A dragon statue with a walking stick and bowls holding a few other travel items. You can take some or leave items for other travelers.
    11. Broken pillars that belonged to an ancient building
    12. An abandoned orchard. If you search it, you can find some ripe fruit (food) and some overripe fruit (alcohol).

Travelers En Route (d12):

    1. A merchant who specializes in fine foods. You can buy delicious food from them to eat today, as if you were in town.
    2. A weather forecaster. You can get a forecast from them.
    3. A courier who can take messages
    4. An itinerant priest(ess). You can ask for a blessing or advice. They appreciate donations.
    5. A storyteller who will trade a tale for a tale.
    6. A mapper. They’ll share part of their map with you and will be happy to see yours.
    7. They tell you about a business opportunity (e.g. shortage or surplus) in a nearby town
    8. Someone else on Journey. They offer to trade souvenirs with you (trade Specialty Goods of the same size for each other)
    9. A rancher driving a herd of pack or riding animals to sell. You can buy one from them for 10% cheaper than normal.
    10. An artisan. If they have the same type of item, they will trade you a new one for a broken one plus the repair cost. They also sell repair kits.
    11. They’re carrying a grandfather clock to the next town. They’re worried about rain and will buy an umbrella if you have one.
    12. They’re transporting a lot of stuffed animals in a variety of sizes. They can sell you one now, or you can commission one to pick up the next time you meet.

Stopped Travelers:

    1. They’re taking a break (see Travelers En Route)
    2. The straps on their sandals or backpack broke and they’re trying to fix them. Maybe you can help?
    3. They twisted an ankle and need help getting to the next town
    4. They’re lost and trying to figure out how to get to [different town]
    5. Their pack animal got stuck in some mud
    6. A performer or troupe of performers, rehearsing
    7. An artist painting the scenery
    8. A farmer whose wagon wheel broke or came off
    9. A hunter checking their traps
    10. A healer tending to another traveller
    11. A noble in a carriage taking a break. If you can entertain them, they’ll let you ride with them to the next town.
    12. A dowser looking for water to build a well

Blades in the Dark Clock and Faction Sheets

When I run Blades in the Dark, I like to have clocks for everything. So I made a sheet with a lot of blank clocks, with markings to help you make 6-, 8-, and 12-clocks.

Clocks sheet v1

Then a few weeks ago, someone on G+ requested a faction worksheet with clocks, so I figured I’d make one of those too.

Faction sheet v1

Glass Bead Game Randomizer

A while back, Rob Donoghue posted about a game you should play to become better at GMing. Created by HipBone games, it’s inspired by the Glass Bead Game that Hermann Hesse wrote about in his book, Magister Ludi.

In the basic game, two players take turn placing ideas on the board. Whenever they place an idea, they need to state connections between the idea they just placed, and any other ideas connected to that space. Whoever comes up with the most total connections wins.

Played solo, it’s a neat exercise in divergent thinking. But I always hit a block when deciding what to fill each space with. To turn it into a pure divergent thinking exercise, I created a randomizer that fills each space with an icon from Game Icons. I also added the ability to set a seed in the URL, so if you find an interesting layout, you can share it around. Every time you randomize, it updates the URL.

Try the Glass Bead Randomizer here

The Companion’s Tale Playtest Review

Last year I had the good fortune to play The Companion’s Tale by Laura Simpson of Sweet Potato Press, with Laura herself acting as facilitator.

The Companion’s Tale is a map-making, storytelling game for 2-4 players that makes heavy use of cards as prompts. It was Kickstarted in March last year. It’s inspired by Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year, but instead of a post-apocalyptic community it’s about a land in upheaval where a hero arises to save it. Nobody actually plays the hero, though. Instead, you play brief vignettes as the hero’s companions, and contribute to the world and history in a variety of ways.

The game starts with some world-building prompts. Each player is given  a question, answers it, and draws a representation of that answer on the map. From there, it moves into three acts, each made of several rounds. An act starts with the Historian phase, where every player contributes a fact. Then come the rounds. Each round, players are assigned one of these roles/duties:

  • The Cartographer, who draws representations of people’s contributions on the map
  • The Companion, who narrates a vignette as one of the Hero’s Companions
  • The Witness, who describes an event that happened elsewhere from the Hero
  • The Lorekeeper, who describes a cultural development.

The roles rotate every round, and the act ends when everyone has had a chance at each role. To close out the act, there’s a Biographer phase. In it, every player contributes some rumors or gossip about other players’ Companions. In every phase, contributions are considered potentially unreliable, and may be contradicted by later contributions.

The Companion’s Tale makes heavy use of cards for prompts. There are cards for Themes, Archetypes, and Faces. At the start of each round, you draw a Theme card for the Historian phase. Each card has a one-word theme, like “Punishment,” and one or two prompts, like “Once the people were punished by the elite.” The prompts are simple but evocative, and subtly steer the game to depict a realm in upheaval.

At the start of the Act, the players draw four Archetype cards, such as “Rival,” “Protege,” “Oracle,” or “Lover,” and lay them out. On the Companion’s turn, the player creates a Companion by choosing one of those Archetypes. They draw two Theme cards and choose one to inform their story, then finally draw a Face card with a portrait of their Companion. The three cards together provide a rich prompt to invent the Companion’s story. Since the game has you draw the Face card after choosing the Archetype, it’s harder to fall back on stereotypes, which leads to more nuanced Companions. When I played, after the Companion player chose the Child archetype, they drew a Face that was an old, scholarly-looking man. If that was the Hero’s Child, then how old must the Hero be? They decided instead that was the Child in his old age, telling his story decades after the fact and having become one of the eminent historians of the period.

I play(test)ed the Diaspora variant, which is designed to allow larger groups to play. You start play as a single group and build the core of a shared map and culture, with elements spanning the map. Then the divide happens: you split into two groups and the map into two pieces, with each group taking one half of the map. Afterwards, you play through the game mostly as normal, but after each act, you pass the Lorekeepers’ cultural contributions to each other. At the end, you get back together, reassemble your halves of the map, and then each player gets to vote on whether the divided lands should reunite.

We started with a core value of Generosity, exemplified by a large lake in the center of the map. Another prompt said that something threatened the kingdom, but people were divided about the nature of the threat. The player who got the prompt drew a volcano on one side of the map and a dragon on the other. When the split happened, I was in the group that got the side of the map with the volcano, a difference that shaped our two cultures. The volcano erupted early in the first act, destroying one of the two capitals. Our game dealt with the resulting economic and social upheaval and was fairly grounded, with no overt magical or supernatural elements. We struggled with feeding people in the wake of the natural disaster, with the main “villain” being a noble who violated our culture’s central tenet of generosity to hoard resources . The group with the dragon side of the map struggled with appeasing and taming the dragon, blood sacrifices, and giant bees.

We discovered these differences every act as we exchanged Lore sheets. Our group felt like our situation was grim, with the crops wiped out by the volcano and the hoarding noble setting up a kind of feudal system. As counterpoint, our Lorekeepers wrote about how the ruin of the capital decentralized the arts, and how the children had started to play a selfish game called “Keep.” Then we got the other group’s Lore sheet, where they had written about appeasing the dragon with pies made from blood mixed with honey. We were horrified and morbidly curious about what was going on in the other half of the realm. The other group found our Lore sheets comforting and a little quaint.

There was some downtime after each act, as whichever group finished first waited for the other group to see their Lore sheet. The breaks gave time to decompress, as the game can use a lot of creative energy.

After the third act, the groups rejoined and spent some time discussing what had happened in each half of the land. Then we held the vote. Almost everyone voted to reunite. One person on our side was concerned about whether the other side had stuck to our core value of generosity. Another on their side was concerned about how we would deal with blood sacrifice.

Playing Companion’s Tale was a wonderful experience. The prompts worked well to give a jumping-off point without overly specifying. The different focuses of the Acts gently shaped the game into a satisfying arc. By the time we got to our third Act, we had both a Traitor and a Spy among the Companions. We all tacitly agreed that the Hero would most likely meet a bad end, and it was just a question of who did the deed. It was decided when the Spy’s player drew the theme “Betrayal” in Act 3. They narrated how the Spy had come to believe in the Hero’s mission, and so gave them the final grace: they would die a martyr, and never have to compromise their ideals.

I loved the Lorekeeper role. I think a lot of worldbuilding forgets about the smaller cultural developments, and it was refreshing to make up children’s games and new slang.

In summary, if you enjoy collaborative storytelling or mapmaking, or like the idea of inventing a history through a variety of lenses and unreliable narrators, check out Laura Simpson’s The Companion’s Tale. As of February 24, 2018, it’s still available for preorder on Backerkit.

Designing a game for Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales duology

Note: I first posted this on G+ in August. I’m reposting it here now as I noodle around the idea again.

Yesterday’s #RPGaDay2017 topic, “What is an RPG you would like to see published,” got me thinking about what existing media I want to see as an RPG. The book series I keep recommending to people is Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales duology, In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice. If you haven’t read them, they’re a collection of nested stories, most obviously inspired by the Arabian Nights but drawing on fairy tales from around the world. Anyway, I wound up with some quarter-baked thoughts for a storytelling game inspired by the series. Thought process follows.

The most obvious choice is to start with Meguey Baker’s 1,001 Nights, which already has the theming and the nested stories. But in terms of feel, it doesn’t match. 1,001 Nights is very much about the relationships between the courtiers. To me, the Orphan’s Tales books are about how you can only assemble the truth by seeing things from multiple viewpoints, especially the forgotten, silenced, or “monstrous” ones. As you read the books, they reveal a series of events that eventually connects to the storyteller herself.

The revealing-events-out-of-order part makes me think of Microscope. I think creating a timeline as you play will be satisfying. But Microscope is very top-down, where the Orphan’s Tales feel more bottom-up. So maybe you create the timeline retroactively as you play out stories. But then how do you play out stories?

Multiple viewpoints and history exploration make me think of the wiki game Lexicon. In Lexicon, you fill out fictional encyclopedia entries and cross-reference them. Each turn you pick out something another player mentioned and make an entry for that, until the alphabet is filled in. In the Orphan’s Tales, the nested stories happen when the main character of the current story meets someone who tells their own story. Which sounds like a good match to me.

So the provisional play cycle is on a wiki or something else with hyperlinking and that lets people edit other people’s entries. Players all agree on a general topic for the game, e.g. Fall of the Snake-Star, and some guidelines about tone and elements. They make a post or entry to hold the timeline. Then every player writes a short tale and posts it under the main character’s name or appellation. They also make a one-line summary of the topic-relevant part of it. At the end of a turn, as a group they decide the initial order of events in the timeline.

For all subsequent turns, players pick a character from someone else’s story and write up that story. They can edit the original story to add a link and, if necessary, a mention that the character told their story. As the stories are written, players add their summaries into the timeline where they seem to fit. End when satisfied.

Flaws: time commitment to read and write stories, even if they’re short. Likelihood of people stretching any word limits you give them, exacerbating the time commitment problem. What happens when people disagree about order of events or object to elements of other people’s stories.

Missing: Some way to encourage re-incorporating existing characters and elements, from different viewpoints or different times.

Creative Blocks and Fatigue in Midnight at the Library of Worlds

One of the big issues I noted from my playtest was creative fatigue. It showed up in several places:

  1. Creating books in the setup phase
  2. As the GM, coming up with the forms of the Ravagers
  3. As the GM, coming up with Dangers for the Librarians to face
  4. As a Librarian, figuring out how you use a book to face a Danger

I think problems 2, 4, and sometimes 3 are caused by the books not providing enough creative prompts. Currently books have three properties: Title, Theme (one of 8 choices), and Type (one of 8 choices). While some titles are evocative, others are harder to work with. Adding more details about the books would make them easier to use.

However, that runs back into problem 1. In the setup phase, people roll for Theme and Type, then come up with a title. The first few book titles were easy to come up with, but people really started reaching as they got to their fifth or sixth book. If people need to invent even more details for each book, it will lengthen the setup phase, and people will get to the main game already tired.

As a last-minute addition, I added an optional variant where you pick real books, then assign them Theme and Type. This would address the issues of having to invent a lot of books, and those invented books lacking detail. I was hesitant to make it part of the main rules because I worried that I already required too many additional materials, and the variant would mean you need 6 books per person to play. I’m also not sure about the logistics of dealing with that many books at the table, although you could manipulate stacks of book cards instead.

On the other hand, Midnight at the Library of Worlds is very much a game celebrating books. It makes sense to let players show their affection for the books they love by including them in the game.

One solution for logistics is to have players fill in titles and authors of real books, but not need those books at the table. You lose the ability to open the book to a random page for inspiration, but if everyone is familiar with the books, there’s a wealth of context available.

That brings to mind another possibility, which is for me to provide a pre-generated list of books with Theme and Type, maybe even multiple lists with different focuses. I didn’t have time during the contest period to do this, but it would let players get started much faster.

Thoughts after playtesting Midnight at the Library of Worlds

I’ve been thinking more about Midnight at the Library of Worlds, my game about an interdimensional library on the eve of apocalypse. I created it for the 2016 (Atypical) Fantasy RPG Design Challenge. I ran one playtest during the contest period, and with only 3 days before the deadline, made a few revisions and called it good. But there were other issues that came up in the playtest I didn’t have time to address. I’ll talk about them here.

One of the first things you do in Library is brainstorm a lot of books. I pre-generated a list of book themes and types, then we all started filling in titles for them. There was a lot of blank page syndrome and some people seemed a bit stressed by the process. As a variant I suggest using existing books and just assigning them themes and types. I might make this the normal method, or pre-generate complete lists of books.

In addition to blocks coming up with book titles, I noticed a lot of creative fatigue and blocks as GM coming up with challenging situations, and as Librarians coming up with uses for books. I think having more context for the Library will help, and more prompts for all players. But I wonder if the resolution mechanic may also have been an issue.

The resolution mechanic is based on Night-time Animals Save the World. Like that game, the danger of a challenge is never supposed to be outright failure. You’re guaranteed to get something out of trying, even if you lose the coin comparison. I think this made it hard to think of challenges that wouldn’t result in total failure, and hard to narrate the outcomes when the Librarian lost the coin comparison.

I wanted to make a game that borrowed strongly from board games. Unfortunately, with the group I tested, this meant the Librarian players spent a lot of time (at least 20 minutes) strategizing before each of the three rounds to work out the best actions for everyone to take. On the plus side, people were engaged. On the downside, it broke up the narrative flow and means the game is vulnerable to the alpha player syndrome that plagues cooperative board games like Pandemic.

Another thing that contributes to the board-game-y feel is the way the rules and the fiction interact. In the lingo of Vincent Baker’s dice-and-cloud diagrams, the rules either go from the fiction to the cues, or from cues to the fiction, but there are no rules that do both. While I could just turn this into a board game, I think the concept is grabby enough that I want to push it more towards the RPG side.

I think the resolution mechanic also contributes to the gaminess. There’s no randomizer, so large-value coins become a resource to be managed. Now that I’m reflecting, I wonder if that’s the right feel for a game about scrambling to get out before the apocalypse. The obvious way to go would be to try a die+bonus vs TN or PbtA 2d6 10+/7-9/6- mechanic, but sticking to the rules of the Fantasy RPG Challenge I’d need to find something different. And if I could find something book-related, that would be even better. (Page numbers? Word counting?)

The last observation is about my inclusion of “Romance” as a book type. There’s a long history of romance as a genre, and I deliberately included “scientific romance” as a possibility, which was one of the early names for the genre now called “science fiction.” Modern romance is notable as a genre written for and by women, focusing on women’s experiences. However, all my players went straight for “trashy romance” and there was much giggling. I could add a sidebar going into the history of the term and genre, but that seems like too much of a detour for what is (currently) a very short game.

Overall, there’s a lot to work on. The concept seems to grab everyone I mention it to, and my playtest group generally had fun, but there were definitely rough patches.