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.

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.

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!

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?


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

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.


Update to Midnight at the Library of Worlds

I’ve made some text revisions to Midnight at the Library of Worlds, clarifying some rules and adding more explanatory and advisory text. I’ve also made a try at a basic layout.

Midnight at the Library of Worlds v1.1

I’ve had Scrivener kicking around for a while and mostly been using it as a glorified notes bin. This time around I decided to use it document compilation features. I copied the text of Library of Worlds into it, and made each section and sub-section a separate node. At the moment my Frankenstein workflow is Scrivener->MultiMarkdown Export to HTML->Open in LibreOffice->Copy Paste into Serif PagePlus. MultiMarkdown seems to be the only Scrivener export format that preserves the header hierarchy instead of converting to font+size markup. PagePlus doesn’t have an HTML import, but copying from LibreOffice seems to preserve the header hierarchy. This means I can set up all the font and paragraph styles in PagePlus and any text I bring over will automatically have them.

Midnight at the Library of Worlds

A game for the Fantasy RPG Design Challenge, a challenge to design the most un-D&D-like fantasy games.

Midnight at the Library of Worlds is about an interdimensional Library on the eve of apocalypse. Players scramble to collect what books they can before fleeing.

Blank Book Cards

Contest Edition (v1.0)

Update: Midnight at the Library of Worlds won the competition!