One thing that I always felt somewhat ambivalent about with PtbA games is how much they stress that the GM isn’t preparing the story for adventures and campaigns, but that everything is collaboratively decided by all the players. Apocalypse World takes it to the extend that the setting is not defined at the start of the game but procedurally generated as the players get to come up with theit own answers about the world that they ask the GM.
Now I absoutely understand where this approach comes from and the motivation behind it. It is all too easy as a GM to get fixed on a specific idea how things should play out in the campaign, how everything looks and works in the setting, and how characters in the setting talk and behave. Players can’t read the minds of their GMs to understand the setting in the same way they envision it (unless the camapign is set in Fantasyland), and so their characters will never act quite like their culture is supposed to be, and they create backstories for their characters and declare that the do things which include technologies, institutions, and customs that don’t match the GM’s vision. Not getting too attached to the specific details of your setting and adjusting your plans to what the players do is good practice for all GMs. Creating the entire setting collaboratively during play certainly is one way to deal with this, but I consider it overkill. I think even when running a PtbA game, you don’t strictly have to do everything collaboratively and can have a perfectly good game by simply being accomodating and working with the players’ initiatives instead of shutting them down.
It’s not how these games are supposed to be run, but it’s something where I am putting my foot down and assert that I know better than the writers. Giving the players considerable agency over their characters is important, but letting the players not only see how the sausage is being made, but participate in its production, is detrimental to the experience of discovery and mystery. In the case of Blades in the Dark, I am really not sure when the author intends for a question about a ruling to be considered internally by the GM, or openly discussed among all the players. But many sections make it appear like you’re supposed to discuss with the players the entire consequences that will happen if an action roll comes out as a failure or partial success. That’s collaborative storytelling to me, but seems antithetical to roleplaying. As a player in a roleplaying game, I want to experience the world and events from the perspective of my character, not as a member of the writing team.
I am fully on board with discussing with the players how they imagine things to play out of they succeed on the roll for their action. That’s perhaps my number one favorite piece of advice I like to give new GMs asking for help: “Always make sure you understand what a player is trying to accomplish.” The mental picture of a situation in a player’s head is always somewhat different from the picture in the GM’s head. Almost every stupid, random, and suicidal action that a player announces makes complete sense in the situation that the player envisons. When a player randomly start to fight a gazebo to the death, it’s almost always because the GM did not successfully communicate the situation for the current scene. As GM it’s your job to first solve this confusion before having the players make hopeless rolls that make them upset about being randomly punished by the consequences. That part of the BitD action resolution system I get fully behind.
But the way the game explains the handling of negative consequences seems actually utterly bizarre to me. To quote the game itself:
The purpose of threatening harm is not always to inflict it, it’s to describe it. The threats become manifest in the minds of everyone playing, even if they’re avoided.
The bad outcomes are spoken aloud. They hang there in the room as horrible potential. They’re scary. Then the player gets to roll their resistance, look you in the eye and say, “No. It’s not that bad. I take the stress instead.” It’s empowering.
If you do it like this, then you are already describing the entire scene and stating it as fact. And then you ask the players if they want to use their option to rewind the scene, make a Resistance Roll, and have the scene play out less severely in exchange for taking stress.
That just feels completely wrong. Again, this is collaborative storytelling. This is not putting yourself in the role of a character who is actually experiencing these events. This approach creates distance between players and characters, the opposite of what we want in a roleplaying game.
And it’s completely unnecessary to implement the existing mechanic in actual play. Instead, you can simply phrase it like this:
You slip off the roof and fall down to the street below, crashing onto the stones which causes a terrible pain going through your leg. Is it broken?
Now the player can decide to say “Yes, it’s broken” and take a level 2 injury “broken leg”. Or declare “I roll on my side and check my leg, and realize that fortunately it’s only a twisted ankle” and make a resistance roll to see how much stress he takes and a level 1 injury “twisted ankle”.
Or take this:
He deflects your blade with his shield and you see his sword hitting you right in the hip. Did the blade impale you?
Again, the player can say “Crap, that got me, I am done for” and take a level 3 injury “impaled”. Or he can say “There is a lot of blood and terrible pain, but my armor just deflected it enough to save my life” and take a level 2 injury “slashed side”. (No stress because armor allows you to resist one hit for free.)
You can do this with any consequence that a player can chose to resist. Describe the consequence to just before the “point of impact” and ask the player if it’s really as bad as it looks. You still describe it, you still speak it out loud. You still get the effect of all the players knowing “this is what would have happened if he had not resisted”. But by phrasing it as a question first you don’t need to retcon something that was already described as having happened. Yes, you could have described in gruesome detail how a PC has his head sliced off and fountains of blood cover all the other PCs nearby before asking the player if he wants to resist. But you don’t need that to make the players feel the gravity of what was just avoided. Movie directors and comic artists figured out a century ago that you don’t need to show all the gory details. It is often much more effective to merely imply it and let the audience fill in the blanks. Telling the players “you swing wide and suddenly see the heavy axe blade falling right on your neck” is completely sufficient.
Instead of calling Cut! and winding back the action, you have the player right at that moment where you felt the impact but are not yet sure how bad it is. It’s the moment between your hand getting caught and feeling terrible pain, but not yet having it pulled back to see the state and remaining number of your fingers. These are the moments where the adrenaline kicks you righr in the chest. It’s the exact moment in a story when the tension is highest. Why would you cheapen this with a tension deflating retcon?
I think it might actually be more memorable to let the players hanging with “what could have been”. It’s up to their own fears and anxieties to fill in that gap with an undefined feeling of dread, which is much more unsettling than telling the players the details of what did not happen.
When it comes to players having the option to use a mechanic to alter the outcome of an event on their characters, simply phrase it as a question. No need to make it a statement and then having to undo it.
Some years ago I had already be thinking about how the supernatural abilities of Apocalypse World could be translated into a fantasy magic system. It had informed how I had been thinking about magic in Kaendor, but when the Inixon campaign ended up running in D&D 5th edition I didn’t want to bother the players with significantly altered spell lists. Offering none of the regular D&D character races had already been a significant change and I didn’t want to cause too much chaos for players who thought they were going to play D&D. But it turns out that my interpretations of AW powers maps very well to the Forged in the Dark rules.
The concept of Wyrd describes the infinite and eternal web of connections between all beings and all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the world together. (Yes, not original, but if you steal, steal from the best.) Everything is connected to everything, and affects everything else. The Wyrd is a weave of fate, but it is not immutable nor inevitable. The Wyrd merely shows how being have been affected by other beings in the past, and will affect other beings in the future. The Wyrd shows where everyone’s steps are leading if they stay on their current paths. It can show what decisions people will make and what actions they will take in encounters that lie ahead of them if they don’t change their way of thinking. The Wyrd does not dictate what mortals and spirits will do. It only shows the paths they are on, both in body and in thought.
All beings sense the Wyrd, even if they are not aware of it. To most people, it is simply intuition, but wise ones know to trust the feelings in their guts. Spirits perceive the Wyrd just as they see, hear, and smell the world around them, which gives them the ability to sense both the future and the past. But it is an infinite number of futures that could lie ahead, and pasts that could have led to this present. Though most spirits pretend otherwise, the pasts and futures they see within the weave are not infallible.
(Wyrd is a Germanic term, while I am going for a more Indo-Iranian style with the setting, so the exact term might still change.)
Changing Fate and Fated to Change
Characters can use their connection to the weird to get a subconscious impression of the causes that led to a situation and the likely effects of an action about to be taken. This ability is open to all characters, regardless of whether they have any education or experience in magic. This covers the options to push yourself, assist another character, or lead a group action. It can also be used to resist and suffer only less severe consequences than would normally have followed from a failure or partial success.
When using any of these options, characters are listening to their intuition to give themselves an advantage in a tense situation, or advise others about things that feel like they would be important to overcome an obstacle. When using such actions to add additional dice to an action roll, characters are opening themselves up to the effects of the supernatural world that is usually kept out of their minds.
On Planet Kaendor, this replaces stress from FitD in the form of strangeness. Strangeness is mechanically identical to stress, but translated into terms that are more in line with the fiction of the setting. Any time characters reach 10 points of strangeness, they are affected by a permanent change, which works the same way as trauma caused by stress. A change adds a new aspect to the personality of a characters. Players are free to choose how much and how often they want the changes to impact their characters’ behavior and actions, but any time they do, their character gains XP towards learning new special abilities.
Characters can have up to three changes. When characters get their fourth change, they either join the folk of the forests or turn into a ghoul, depending on how much they have been exposed to sorcerous corruption. (Player’s call.)
Characters can always try to reduce their current strangeness as a downtime activity. Many practitioners of magic use meditation rituals or prayer to calm their minds and ground themselves in their mortal nature. Though characters can choose to do whatever helps them keeping their minds from gradually unraveling. Characters who don’t take such actions after an adventure and have already gained a first change continue to accumulate strangeness even back in the comforts of their homes. (This works just like vice, except that there is no risk to overindulge.)
I am currently very much considering that changes will give characters additional options for special abilities to learn during character advancement. Changes don’t have to be negative things, and thinking more like spirits could be regarded as a beneficial transformation by many sorcerers. Having changes can also be used as a factor for determining the effect level for actions like Consort and Sway, reducing the effect when talking to ordinary mortals, but providing increased effect when talking with normally inscrutable spirits.
When characters use the Attune action, they are attuning their minds to the Wyrd. Through the Wyrd they can sense the connections between all living things, and connect their thoughts to those of the spirits to see what they have seen, hear what they have heard, and rely on their ancient wisdom to make sense of the sensations. Divinations like these are the most common form of rituals.
Rituals can also connect to the minds of other people, altering their memories or giving them ideas that are not their own.
Alternatively, characters can attempt to make a bargain with a spirit or compel it to perform a service. Almost all magic that doesn’t fall into divinations or charms is of this kind. What services spirits can perform depends on their powers, but most commonly it relates to controlling the natural forces of the environment. Sending a demon to attack or abduct an enemy is also a possibility, though.
Performing rituals exposes characters to strangeness, the amount of which depends on the scope and strength of the desired effects.
While alchemical substances are inherently magical, working with them is a regular trade using the Tinker action and not relying on the Attune action. As alchemical creations are important components in many rituals, most sorcerers and shamans have at least some basic knowledge in the alchemical arts, and the nature 9f their work leads many alchemist to have a rating of one or two dice in the Attune action.
One of the most important alchemical substances is iron. When using implements made of iron, they have the standard potency against spirits. Items made from bronze, like most weapons and tools, only have limited potency when used against spirits.
Performing alchemy does not expose a character to strangeness.
The Forged in the Dark system from Blades in the Dark uses an action resolution system that is very similar to Apocalypse World but also slightly different. Just like in AW, all rolls are made with d6s and the possible outcomes are failure on a 1-3, partial success on 4/5, and full success on a 6. But instead of always rolling 2d6 and adding the appropriate attribute modifier to the result, FitD has you roll a number of d6s equal to the attribute rating and taking only the number from the highest dice as the result for the roll.
Usually I really don’t like dice pool mechanics (though I make an exception for Star Wars). I think my main objection is all the counting of dice, but in this system you don’t even have to do that. All you have to do is to look if you see any 6s, and if not if you see any 5s or 4s. There’s also a critical success if you have multiple sixes, but that still only requires you to tell the difference between “one six” and “multiple sixes”. This is stupidly simple. And still you get all the benefits from a dice pool system. Did any other games do this before? Did it take four decades of RPGs for someone to think of this?
The attribute rating a character can have for anything can range from 0 to 4 dice, but there are fairly simple ways to get another 2d on top of that. You could even get higher than that through situational modifiers, but here I’ve only taken it up to 6 dice. Starting characters probably have some points in about half of the 13 ratings, and it’s always up to the players which of their abilities they want to use. When you get attacked by enemies, nothing says that you have to cross swords with them to end the fight with a Skirmish roll. You can also end the fight by talking them down with a Skirmish roll, or make a daring escape with a Prowl or Finesse roll. It will lead to widely different results coming from a success or failure, but if you have the same ratings in the different abilities, the mechanics make no difference between them. And you can always chose to get a bonus die to any roll by adding to your character’s stress level. So if you don’t want to, you barely ever have to make a roll with less than 2 dice. Though if for some reason you want to make a roll with 0 dice, you roll 2 dice and take the lower number as your result.
Reading about the probabilities for 2d6 on Jeff’s Gameblog had me wondering how the actual odds are really looking for Forged in the Dark rolls, and I came up with this. (I don’t know how to easily calculate for two or more 6s for critical successes, but they are really just a slightly stronger versions of full successes on a single 6.)
A result of 4 or 5 is a partial success, which means that you do the thing you wanted to do (an effect), but you also suffer a negative complication (a consequence). This can mean that you effectively get both a success and a failure at the same time, but the consequence can also simply be that you get a weaker version of what you intended to accomplish.
When rolling a single die, there is only a 50% chance of a full failure, which means a 50% that you get at least some success at what you tried to do. When you go to 2d, you’re already at 75% to get some kind of success. Above that, the probability that you just straight fail at your attempted action quickly becomes negligible. However, the chance to just get a full success with no negative consequences does not improve nearly as much.
In this table, I added the chance for a partial success both to the odds for a failure and a full or critical success. This is the table that matters when you’re asking yourself “How much do I need to do what I want to do?” or “How much do I fear the possible consequences?” And I find the result very interesting. If you have invested some of your advancement points into an ability and take the stress penalties for an extra dice or two, the chances that your character succeeds at doing what you wanted to do are very high. But the odds that you will have to deal with a consequence starts at an extremely high level and always stays significant.
Overall, the odds for the possible results are hugely different between 0d and 6d, or even just between the more commonly encountered range of 1d to 5d. But regardless of what you roll, the partial success result in the middle means that you always have a good shot of getting what you want with your actions, but never rest assured that it will go smoothly. I think that’s actually brilliant for making a game always exciting.
Looking over my older posts, I’ve started talking about Barbarians of Lemuria some five years back, and been thinking about how to combine elements of it with aspects of Apocalypse World basically since I first learned about that game two years ago. Both are pretty rules light, and while they are both presented with quite distinctive settings, the mechanics have always struck me as having great potential for a very wide range of campaigns. They are both rules systems that have mechanics to figure out the outcome of uncertain situations when the PCs try to do something in the face of opposition from other people or the environment, which they do quick and painlessly and then are out of your hair to let you go on with the developing story. I really like this approach to what an RPG should be and do.
Some kind of hybrid of the two games has long been a vision of an ideal game for me, but since I have little personal experience with both BoL and AW, cobbling something entirely new together never seemed like a real option. And the way my groups form, getting a number of players together to play the weird homebrew system of a GM they never played with never really had any promise of success.
When I was looking into fantasy games based on the mechanics of Apocalypse World, there were really only two that have any popular presence. The first of course being Dungeon World, which I found to be very disappointing as it is an attempt to recreate the experience of D&D adventures with different dice rolling mechanics instead of doing anything with the very different approach to what a campaign can be that is promised by the Apocalypse World rules. And the other one is Blades in the Dark.
This game had been recommended to me by some people in the past and I had taken a look at it some time back. I don’t recall what I had been looking for back then when I took a peek, but I remember that I mostly looked at the setting, which is very post-apocalyptic Victorian steampunk. It’s basically Thief and Dishonored the Roleplaying Game, which really is cool, but at the time made me write it off as not being useful to whatever I was trying to do. I also remember seeing it has only three attributes, which made me go eww… Which turns out was a real shame.
Because looking at the system again from a mechanics focused perspective, it really strikes me as the closest thing I have yet encountered to that idealized blend of Barbarians of Lemuria and Apocalypse World, I had been dreaming of. It’s of course not exactly the game that I want to run for my next Kaendor campaign. There are all kinds of peripheral rules in this game about the gang of the PC’s increasing their reputation in the underworld, fighting for turf, and dealing with the police putting pressure on their activities, which really wouldn’t have any place in my campaign. But the core mechanics for making characters, character advancement, task resolution, and character durability is really solid.
While it’s not necessarily being more compact than Apocalypse World, it is much more straightforward and easy to grasp, even though at first there seem to be a lot of new mechanical concepts and principles you have to dig through. And Blades in the Dark really is quite a big book that doesn’t scream rules light. But I tried to write down the basics of character creation and action resolution as a simple introductory handout for new players, and I managed to get it all on only two and a half pages. (Excluding the rules for running a criminal empire.) That’s really quite impressive.
The Basics of the System
Characters in Blades in the Dark are really very simple. They mostly come down to 12 action ratings and 3 derived attributes. But these are not like attributes and skills like you see them in most other skill based systems, where you add your attribute scores to your skill rank to determine what dice you roll. Instead you have twelve basic actions, which in other games would be skills, or moves in Apocalypse World. Anything that PCs might do that has a chance of failure and negative consequences falls under one of these twelve actions.
Attune (do magic stuff)
Command (order people around)
Consort (chat with people)
Finesse (climbing, jumping, picking pockets, …)
Hunt (tracking, trapping, …)
Study (inspect or research a thing or person)
Survey (observe people or places)
Sway (convince people of things)
Tinker (work with machines)
Wreck (break stuff)
These actions are not methods or techniques, but arranged by outcomes. Skirmish is the action for the vast majority of ways that you can fight, regardless of weapons, armor, fighting style, and so on. Sway can be debating, deceiving, seducing, pleading, or whatever else you can think of to make people change their mind with your words. I can’t really think of anything to do with Prowl other than sneaking past people without being detected, and Study and Survey do overlap quite a bit, but I can’t really think of anything that might come up in a game where you need any other category of action as a player. Characters have a rating for all these actions that goes from 0 to 4.
What I really like is that there are twelve equal actions and only one of them is combat. Hunt and Wreck can also be used for violence in some situation, but that’s not their primary purpose. Treating fighting as equal to all other actions is something that really appeals to me and makes it a very inviting system for games where fighting is not the main event of adventures.
Unlike Apocalypse World, where you always roll 2d6 and add your attribute score to the result, Blades in the Dark has you roll a number of d6 that is equal to your rating, plus and minus additional dice for various circumstances. (If you end up with less than 1 die, you roll 2 dice and take the lower one.) The die with the highest number is your result for the roll, with a 6 being a success, a 4 or 5 giving you a success but also negative consequences, and 1 to 3 being only the bad consequences with no success. I’m not generally a fan of dice pools, but picking the highest number out of only up to 6 or 7 dice at the most with no additions is really quick and painless.
While there are attributes, they are not very similar to attributes in other games. Instead the 12 action ratings are grouped into three groups of four, resulting in four Insight actions, four Prowess actions, and four Resolve actions. The attribute score is simply the number of actions for which you have a rating of 1 or higher, resulting in a score of 0 to 4, which increases over time as you put a first point into the skills of that group. Attributes are mostly used when you roll to reduce the severity of negative consequences from a failed or partially successful action roll, and for tracking which action ratings you can improve when you get XP.
Characters also start with 1 special ability selected from a long list of options, and probably gain a new one that can also be freely selected every 1 to 3 game sessions.
And that is mostly it. There are of course a lot more bells and whistles regarding items, wealth, the injury and stress mechanic, but attributes and special abilities are more or less all the character creation and character advancement for this game.
Taking an action in Blades in the Dark work the following way.
The player describes what his character is trying to do.
The player declares which of his character’s action ratings he will use for the roll.
The GM judges the positioning for the action, which is the potential severity of the consequences should the action roll fail or only be a partial success.
The GM judges the effect if the roll will be a success. Based on the approach the player described, the GM decides if it should result in the ordinary outcome for such an action, or the result will be of limited or greater magnitude.
The player can decide to push himself to get an extra die for the roll, and another player can decide to assist and also add an additional die.
Basically this come down to what happens in most games with a GM who isn’t a jerk. The player ask “Could it work if I…” and the GM replies “Yes, but the chance is…”. Then the player might take it and make the roll, but could also decide that he really wants a greater effect than the GM declared and change the action to something more daring that also results in a worse positioning by increasing the danger resulting from a failure. Or the other way around, the player might decide that the danger is too high and instead change the action to something with a better positioning and accepting a reduced effect.
To keep things simple, there are only three categories of position: Controlled, Risky, and Desperate. And only three categories of effect: Limited, standard, and greater. This is easy to follow without any math involved. Do you want risk high or low danger and do you want to go for high or low reward? It’s not always a simple trade-off. Sometimes things are so much in your favor that you only have the low risk of controlled positioning and the expectation of a greater effect as the outcome. Or things look extremely bleak and you can only expect a lesser effect even though the positioning is desperate.
But these things don’t come down to only luck. Players have quite a lot of room to control the damage a failed action roll leads to. At any time, a player can declare that the severity of an injury or complication resulting from a roll is reduced by one category. The GM can say “You fall from the roof and badly hurt your leg. Is it broken?” And the player can decide to reduce the damage and say “No, fortunately it just seems sprained.” You can always do this, but it comes at the expanse of added stress. And when a character reaches 10 stress during an adventure, the character has some kind of mental breakdown that takes him out of the adventure and leaves a permanent mark on his mind. You also gain stress when pushing yourself or assisting another character to add additional dice to an action roll. Stress can also result from exposure to the supernatural, just like it does in Darkest Dungeon. Injuries will heal, but damage to the mind sticks around. So you might not always want to reduce the severity of your injuries or complications.
Forged in the Dark
The really neat thing that I found out today is that there is an SRD for the system that contains most of the rules that are not specific to the Duskwall setting of Blades in the Dark. It does not include the seven playbooks (character templates in PtBA games), but simply has all the special abilities put into a big single list from which GMs can put together their own lists for different character archetypes in their campaign. The SRD even has a template to make your own playbooks, and I think it has everything you need to fully recreate the ones from BitD. (Not sure what difference it makes, but there surely must be some copyright considerations behind this.) The only other thing from outside the setting chapter I’ve found to be not included are the four types of undead in Duskwall, but again the mechanics for making your own are there.
There also is of course a license to make your own stuff with the material from the SRD and using the Forged in the Dark label for it. The License is extremely generous and only requires you to include an attribution to John Harper and One Seven Design and not claim any official connection or endorsement by them. The Duskwall setting remains copyrighted, but everything in the SRD is fair game. And that’s all there is. Which I think is really cool.
Nothing set in stone yet, but right now I really want to give this a try for my next campaign. Aside from the criminal empire rules, this seems like a really well rounded system not just for fantasy but in general, and I think you could run a campaign even with just the basics. I can absolutely see myself making up some new rules for paranormal investigation, but I don’t think that’s even necessary to start a campaign. Really looking forward to trying this out.
Some other great characters who don’t really fit the general adventurer type but still end up in them.
(What is it with all these doctors?)
I also remembered last night that I’ve been at this place before. Four years ago I already wrote a couple of posts about turning high fantasy adventures into the opposite direction of murderhoboing. In A Case for Hope and Heroism I was still thinking about making slight adjustments for how adventurers could be part of their world, but it came out of the same general idea.
Back then, I lined out nine points for how high fantasy campaigns could possibly be less confrontational and focused on violence:
The heroes seek to restore peace and order over destroying evil.
The heroes get involved when witnessing injustice.
The heroes aim to be examples to others.
The conflicts have sources that won’t go away by killing the enemy leader.
Mercy and offerings of peace will pay out in the long run.
Violence can help to get out of a tight spot but will always mean more trouble down the line.
The antagonists have various reasons to fight and at least some of them can be persuaded to change to other methods.
Heroes will sometimes fail, but having tried is what matters.
The heroes give and risk more than can be reasonably expected of them.
I think all these points still apply when you have a party of player characters who don’t qualify as traditional adventurers. Certainly a line of inquiry to follow.
The more I think of it, the more I feel like a campaign like this should be run with a system based on the core principles and mechanics of Apocalypse World. (Or something else, but I’m somewhat familiar with AW.) The main thing on my mind to start with is the choice of basic character attributes. Having stats like Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution wouldn’t really reflect the defining traits of such PCs.
What I think most probably should be an attribute is Courage. That’s what it would be all about in the end. Though I am not fully certain what this would mean for characters with a low Courage score. I also think that something like Sanity in horror games is a bad idea, because fear and panic is something that the players feel for their characters. Not something that the GM tells them their characters are feeling. Courage might run into similar issues, depending on what such an attribute would be used for.
Persuasive is also a no brainer. And I think Athletic would also be a good one, for when you have to rely on your strength, endurance, and agility to do what is needed.
But, being a game of high fantasy, I feel that a combat system still is a must. Not necessarily something that you’d want to use, but something that the situations will sometimes require.
This is all a very long way from being anything like an actual game, but I’m feeling quite motivated to see where this could be taken to.
Since my last D&D campaign wrapped up, I’ve been thinking about where to go with fantasy campaigns in the future. The campaign always felt the most fun and entertaining to me as GM, when it was the least like D&D, and I didn’t really enjoy running it during the parts that were conventional dungeon crawling. These past weeks I’ve been spending a good amount of time with researching and working on ideas about fantasy campaigns that are not either “kill lots of monsters to get rich” or “kill lots of monsters to stop the Dark Lord”.
This hasn’t been a completely new thing for me, as I’ve been coming back to the questions of what fantasy RPGs could look like if they are not mostly fighting for the sake of fighting. But after running D&D 5th edition with a group of mostly other D&D GMs as players, and often talking with them about how certain things worked out, it’s become really noticeable for me how much “kill lots of monsters” is baked into the most fundamental assumptions of most fantasy RPGs.
One new idea I was pondering was to make a campaign that is all about exploration, revolving around characters who are explorers driven by curiosity instead of greedy treasure hunters or killers for hire. Almost everything that is written about exploration in RPGs really is about mechanics for overland travel and wilderness survival. Which to me isn’t exploration. That’s a resource management minigame. The remaining part about exploration is discovery of wondrous places, things, and phenomenons. This can be a very considerable draw and player motivation in videogames, but visual art to be experienced at your own leisure doesn’t translate to a almost entirely verbal group activity. To really play a roleplaying game, you need interactivity and you need a story. And exploration and discovery in itself is not a story. They are elements to support and embellish a story, but the story itself still needs to be about dealing with obstacles. “Exploration” is not the answer. It’s something that I definitely want to be a major part of future campaigns, but I think it does not work as a simple replacement for “treasure hunting” to achieve the shift that I want.
After making the choice to step back from exploration as the main goal and focus, I had some talk with other GMs and players about what a fantasy campaign could also be, which led me to looking at and thinking about games like Blades in the Dark, Pendragon, Ars Magica, Legend of the Five Rings, and Call of Cthulhu. Which all are very much not dungeon crawling games. And something they have in common is that the player characters generally don’t fall into the category of “adventurers”. There is fighting in these games and there are plenty of ancient abandoned places, but adventuring is not the profession of most PCs. Now I don’t have any interest in playing an anthropomorphic toad in a waistcoat that drinks tea and debates human rights with a giant talking mushroom. Or even a nobleman discussing strategy and the justice of their fight against evil neighbors in a throne room. I still want the adventure, with spooky caves and weird monsters. But perhaps stepping back from the idea of the PCs being full time professional adventurers might be a step into the right direction. Instead of facing constant violence and threat of death as a way of life, it can be an extraordinary event in the lives of the PCs? And something that is dispreferable, not just ethically but also mechanically.
Okay, now after this very long preamble, I come to my actual point: I’ve been browsing though my favorite works of fantasy/adventure fiction to look for characters who could make interesting templates for PCs in a fantasy RPG without really fitting into the adventurer category.
The very first thing I notice with these is that more or less all of them are supporting characters, who provide primarily moral support to heroes who are legendary masters of combat. Indiana Jones isn’t really that known for his amazing fighting skills, and Bilbo counts as protagonist on grounds of being the point of view character, but I think you see what I’m getting at. (Ginko is clearly the hero of his story, though.)
They are people you wouldn’t pick as backup when planning to go into scary holes in the ground or face savage foes in battle. (Except Olga and maybe Lando.) But they all do end up in circumstances where this becomes a necessity and handle themselves very well, often ending up participating in the resulting violence.
What could a campaign look like in which all of the player characters are people like these? Where they are not following around a master swordsman, gunslinger, or elite special agent? Really more a hypothetical concept at this point than even work in progress, but a direction I really want to follow further.
It makes me think that perhaps some kind of Apocalypse World hack would be really well suited for such a game. While there a piles and piles of those, strangely enough almost none of them are high fantasy games. The only notable exception is Dungeon World, which I think completely dropped the ball by trying to recreate the experience of D&D. What’s the point of playing D&D adventures with mechanics designed to be a full anti-D&D? Unfortunately I am not familiar with the ins and outs of AW hacks, and the one that is the most similar to my idea is an example of what specifically not to do with the system. So I don’t feel like I should be the one to make it, but it certainly would be neat to have one.
The house of the merchant Perang sits on top of a tall spire of rock, similar to the homes of most wealthy and powerful people in Tual. The poorer people live in shacks clinging to the base of the spires, resting on wooden posts, where they frequently get flooded or swept away by the stormy seas.
In the Green Sun campaign, Perang turned out to have been replaced by a doppelganger, who died at the hands of the heroes. Tual still exist in Planet Kaendor, and I might use Perang again as an NPC.
I believe that is the lamest title I’ve ever used for a post. But it does get across what’s inside: How about implementing some of the moves from Apocalypse World in Barbatians of Lemuria?
Now there is already a Sword & Sorcery conversion for Apocalypse World that basically just replaces all the names with S&S terminology, and simply using that for a fantasy campaign is an option that I did serious entertain some time back. But as cool sounding as it is, AW is a very strange game, compared to which BoL seems like a much “safer” choice for introducing new players to a new setting. Bur many of the concepts and principles of AW are quite fascinating and I’ve long been wondering how much one could adopt them for running other systems ad well.
The core mechanic of Apocalypse World is the move. There is no initativr system, instead players simply announce when they want to do something, and its up to them to share the spotlight, with some moderation by the GM if it becomes necessary. Hostile NPCs take their turns as reactions to the players making a move. Or more precisely, a reaction from NPCs or the environment is part of the various moves that the players take. If one player wants to push on the stage and take four moves in a row, he also can expect to be the target of four reactions and consequences, and with the way character endurance works you usually want to spread the return fire among the party. (In adition, the rules make it very clear that if the players are paralyzed with indecision, the GM can just throw a reaction at them at any time to shake up the situation and get the action moving again.)
It’s a pretty interesting system, and while the existing combat mechanics of Barbarians of Lemuria make the combat moves of Apocalypse World non-applicable, some of the more interaction oriented moves should be quite easy to incorporate. Both systems use 2d6 for rolls, with an attribute modifier that usually ranges from -1 to +3. AW generally requites a 7 to succeed and BoL a 9 before any other modifiers are applied, and a 10 in AW and a 12 in BoL results in a greater than normal success. This makes importing AW moves into BoL very easy.
In AW, characters can read a charged situation, that is any situation that looks like it could lead to conflict, and ask verious questions about useful information about the situation from the GM. Using this action in BoL, a Mind roll of 9 would be a success and allow the player to ask one question. A roll of 12 would be a mighty success and allow the player to ask three questions. These can be things like “Who is really in charge here?”, “Who is the most dangerous person present?”, “Where would be the best escape route?”, “What do these guys really think of us?”, and things like that. If the roll is a failure, the player still has to ask one of these question, but the answer will reveal a new complication that wouldn’t have been present if the player had rolled a success or not rolled at all.
There is also the move to read a person. The mechanic is the same, but the player can ask things like “Is that guy telling the truth?”, “What is that character really feeling?”, “What is he going to do next?”, and “What does he wanting me to do?” These are things that players might already ask in most campaigns, to which the GM would probably either reply to make a suitable attribute or skill check, ot that the character can’t know that. In games like D&D, where the core if the gameplay is the overcoming of obstacles with the powers and resources the characters have, GMs will probably go mostly with the later option, and when a roll is allowed, failure would simply mean that the player learns nothing or gets false information. BoL is not really a game like this, and letting players have generous access to information to make individual scenes more dramatic and exciting seems like fair game to me.
A third move that I feel should fit quite well is seducing or manipulating a person. In BoL, that would be an Appeal roll. On a 12 the roll will be a mighty success and the character will go along with what the player wanted. On a 9 and a regular success, the character agrees if the player offers something of comparable value in return. If the toll fails, the attempt will come to bite the player in the ass. Maybe now, or maybe much later. It could turn out to be something that no longer matters when it happens, and the NPC might still give the player what he asked for.
The beauty of these resolutions is that they provide an easy mechanic for failing forward. One of the biggest killer of momentum and cause of games stalling is when players come up with an idea or a plan, but a random die (or a GM who set an impossible target number) determines that “nothing happens”. From a gameplay perspective, nothing is the worst thing that can happen. It’s better to either give the players what they want, or something that they didn’t want. Either way, the situation has now changed and the players need to think of a new best idea for a new problem. Not of a second best idea for the old problem.
Apocalypse World also allows all player characters to perform a kind of basic divination at any time. Basically the player asks for some kind of useful hint related to the current situation andthe answer from the GM could be basically anything. In return, the higher powers ask something about the character. The player than has to share something of the character’s backstory or personality, or make up a new addition on the spot. The GM will then file away that information to maybe be exploited in some way at some point in the future. On a success the information will be vague, and on a mighty success something really useful. On a failure, something unexpected and bad will result. It’s definitely one if the weirder elements of Apocalypse World. (But by far not the weirdest.)
I am really wondering if this could also be incorporated into BoL. I could see it as a cantrip that could be performed by any characters with at least 1 point in the Magician career. That would make it unavailable to many player characters, but it also would contribute to making sorcerers dangerous and strange even to their allies. Really not sure if it’s a good idea, but I think it sounds too fun not to try it out.
Despite my expectations, I actually stumbled across a great idea for my Planet Kaendor reworking yesterday, shortly after writing the last post.
I’ve had a long on-again, off-again relationship with Sword & Sorcery campaigns. I’m absolutely a huge fan of Conan and Kane, but generally enjoy reading them in small portions. For long term campaigns, the typical bleakness and violence seems like a bit too much for me, and when you descend down into the abyss of Sword & Sorcery fandom, you get quickly swept up in the currents of hyper-violent grimdark orthodoxy. Which in my opinion is considerably more extreme and intellectually hollowed out than the tales of the great masters ever where. Yes, they always were violent, reveled in (implied) debauchery, and had elements of horror. But the popular perception today is like a copy of a copy of a copy that only captures the most extreme expressions of black and white and losing all nuances.
But I digress.
The piece of advice for S&S campaigns that I came across was a reminder that the stories are usually highly episodic and the heroes begin each new adventure in a completely different place, with all the gains from their last undertaking already lost and forgotten. Which was put in direct opposition to the infamous quote from Gary Gygax that “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT”. I never was a fan of Gygax and his ideas of adventures and gamemastering (*boo*, *hiss*, I know…), but this piece of advice I always found very compelling. And I did rigorously apply it during the Inixon campaign, though that turned out to not have made any difference because we never went through with managing long expeditions into the wilderness from a fortified base camp.
But now that I think about it, this is really an approach to managing time that works in direct opposite to the aesthetic goal of making the world feel unmoored in time, with no real sense of either the past or the future. The rest of the world is not keeping track of what happened before, then why would the hero. The inevitability of all their deeds being forgotten and leaving no lasting legacy is supposed to be part of the setting’s tone.
To take it a step further, you could not just stop using a calendar (even though I made such a cool one) but also forgo keeping detailed records what the players did entirely. Taking notes about what is currently going on in the current adventure is of course still a good practice, but once it is wrapped up and the campaign moves on to the next adventure, you can discard them and rely entirely on your own fallible memory. When the players ask who exactly an NPC was who they supposedly had been talking to some adventures earlier, just shrug your shoulder and tell them that their vague memories of those encounters are probably reasonably close enough to what really happened. Don’t try to help them remember. At this point it doesn’t matter anymore anyway and whatever they can agree on now becomes the new reality. Even if as the GM, you still remember what really happened.
So here I am, again, planning a new fantasy campaign, again, determined to make it so much better than previous attempts. Again.
Now my last fantasy campaign did end differently and sooner than I had expected. But it did finish with an actual conclusion. With the villains beaten and the day saved. Which by this metric makes it the most successful campaign I’ve ever been involved with. At 19 sessions in total, it was also the longest campaign I’ve ever been involved with. And in the early and middle parts, I felt that my performance as GM was leagues above anything I’ve ever done before. In part because I really learned quite a lot about gamemastering in the four years or so since I had last run a campaign, but I think at least to an equal if not even higher degree because I used a much more open-ended approach to what the story will be. Despite my initial plans, it wasn’t really a sandbox campaign by any stretch of that term, but dropping the players off in a place with only vague hints that there are some useful things in the area that could help them later on their journey directly resulted in the most fun sessions I’ve ever had as either GM or player.
It was only on the final leg of the campaign, when I made it into a more conventional dungeon assault to reach some kind of conclusion, that I felt myself increasingly fighting with the constraints of D&D and my enthusiasm for the game dropped considerably. The players still seemed to have a great time, but my heart really wasn’t into it anymore. I was already looking forward to try again with mechanics that work for me, not against me.
Down the Dungeon
One realization that I made during the later parts of the Inixon campaign is that dungeons really don’t do it for me. I am a huge fan of the idea and the aesthetics of magical caves and ruined cities. But I really don’t like the gameplay concept of the dungeon.
Having a dungeon with a few dozen rooms which are inhabited by various groups of guards and creatures makes sense for a dungeon crawling campaign. But I found that when the players go to a place to meet a NPCs, be it to rescue, negotiate with, or fighting them, going through an entire dungeon really just becomes a drag and a nuisance that gets in the way of making progress with the game. A castle may well have hundreds of rooms, but the story of sneaking into one specific room in that castle does not require hundreds of scenes to play out. Look at books and movies that have cool locations that could be considered dungeons, and I think almost all of them come down to really just three or four rooms in which all the scenes play out. Jabba’s Palace: Main gate, throne room, rancor pit. Thulsa Doom’s Lair: Main stairs, cave passage, throne room. Fully mapped dungeons are for dungeon crawling games. For narrative focused games, they seem to be out of place.
From Crawling to Walking
Very much related to purpose of dungeons is the usefulness of resource management. Typical fantasy adventuring gear is mostly for dealing with the many obstacles that are encountered in dungeons. Most objects can be used in scenes in a narrative focused game as well, but there generally isn’t the expectation that you always have to carry around your golf bag of adventuring gear with you all the time because you know you’ll be needing most of it very soon. Tracking how much stuff characters can carry makes sense when you have an expectation that supplies will run out after frequent use and restocking won’t be easily possible before that happens. It also becomes relevant when the weight of all the stuff impacts how fast or how slow the characters can be progressing through the places they are in.
When I prepared the Inixon campaign, doing a traditional wilderness exploration based on long expeditions into The Isle of Dread had actually been my plan. But while we were playing Against the Cult of the Reptile God we already settled into dynamics and character motivations that were much more narrative focused. And it became even more so during the completely unscripted stay in the pirate town that went on much longer than the one or two sessions I had calculated for it.
The experience with these parts of the campaign had been amazingly positive. Not only did I get great responses from the players, I also felt like my performance as GM went up steeply and the workload both during games and when preparing new content seemed to plummet down to a fraction. You can of course set up a wilderness crawl completely blind and leave it entirely in the hands of the players to do or die. But I feel like this would only be fun with players who really want this style of game and who are quite decent at it. Otherwise making sure that the obstacles they are facing will be challenging but not too dangerous and keeping an eye on how much resources they have left and will need to find in the near future becomes quite a lot of work. Work that I now can absolutely live without. Resource management is another thing I want to leave by the side for the time being.
When I am sitting by myself, coming up with great ideas for worldbuilding, the Sword & Sorcery setting I imagine is full of alien and exotic stuff like Tekumel, Barsoom, or Morrowind. But in every single campaign I’ve run in this type of setting, I always ended up describing a fairly ordinary generic fantasyland to the players. In this case it was generic pirates and serpents fantasyland, but that’s still just in a different climate zone in fantasyland.
And once again, I suspect a primary source of this might be D&D. In particular, it’s power gradient as monsters and other enemies are concerned. I tend to to create monsters of a style that makes them seem like they could potentially be actual animals that once existed somewhere on Earth, or which at least are not inconceivable as hypothetical branches that could have had evolved naturally. When statting such creatures for D&D, it usually is the easiest way to simply reskin some kind of monster that already exists, like an owlbear or rhinoceros. But when you do that, you already have locked in the relative power level of many of your new original critters. And in my case, the more exotic and stranger creatures are almost all more dangerous and powerful than the more mundane ones, so their D&D stats have to be correspondingly higher as well. And at that point I had already trapped myself, making a good portion of the more interesting creatures so powerful that PCs would have to have a good number of levels under their belt to face them with a real chance to win. Now the Inixon campaign ran over 19 games and at the end the PCs would have reached 6th level if the campaign would have continued. It was a long campaign with a not unusually slow advancement, but even so I never got an opportunity to show of many of the creatures in their natural environment without wiping out the party.
What actually happened was that I filled the encounters that the players got up with the smallest and most uninteresting of critters. Mostly cultists and snakes, with the occasional wolf-reskin and yuan-ti boss. Total fail. It also didn’t help that so much time was spend fighting those little critters because you need to get plenty of fights under your belt to get to the higher levels. Time that wasn’t spend interacting with the local cultures. This really ties in directly with the issue of dungeons.
Hopefully I can avoid this mistake when I am converting my material to Barbarians of Lemuria.
This is something that I’ve never got to work. Not even remotely. The aesthetic and tone that this type of Bronze Age Pangea setting is meant to evoke the style of Dying Earth fiction. With a world that is huge and wild and covered in ruins, but barely inhabited by people at all. Nothing of that kind ever came up in any of my previous campaigns. I thought the solution to that would be to have long wilderness journeys on which the players have to chart their course along landmarks and manage their supplies and deal with the difficulties of transportation. Usually that never happened because the PCs never got a level where I thought they would be ready to deal with such a challenge. And with a more narrative focus for the next campaign and ditching resource management, that won’t really be an option either. No real clue how to work on that, but it’s one more priority in which I’ll have to find ways to include it.
Why are we doing all of this?
One thing that had really bothered my for several years when setting up new campaigns was with setting up situations and environments in which it would feel believable to me that the PCs are risking their lives to go on these adventures. Typically in fantasy RPGs, you get two kinds of characters: Murderhobos and magic boy scouts.
When you’re running a dungeon crawl campaign and the goal of the campaign is to overcome monsters and get their treasure to get XP for being able to overcome more powerful monsters to get their treasure, then there really is no need for anything more complicated than characters who are risking their lives for riches and don’t really concern themselves with anything else. But for something that has more focus on an unfolding narrative where more time is spend on conversations and making arrangements between various competing groups, such characters won’t work. They just want to know where the monsters with the treasure are.
On the other hand you have the shining heroes who have nothing better to do with their lives than permanently wandering around looking for any opportunity to risk their lives against terrifying foes for people they don’t have any connection to. These are characters that work for games where everyone knows the campaign is about brave heroes saving the world from evil. But I don’t feel them being suitable for campaigns where there is no black and white good and evil, and no obvious end goal that all PCs would automatically pursue. Which I think is where all the much more interesting stories take place.
I’ve struggled for many years with finding a good description of what kind of people “adventurers” are in my setting and what players should expect of their role in the campaign. But now I think I always made this much more complicated than it really needs to be. I think all you really need to get players engaged with a dangerous situations and get invested in the outcome is to tell them to make characters who are deep down decent people and put them in situations where they have the means to make a real difference for good. Most sane people really like doing good things but avoid being heroic in everyday life out of uncertainty and fear of doing something wrong or getting into danger. In a game, this isn’t really a factor. Games let you do the right thing without any actual risk or cost, and in these situations most people are more than happy to play the hero. Many videogames check off trophies and achievements for ending the game in a heroic or villainous way, and in most cases you see vastly more players who did save all the kittens instead of kicking the dogs. (And I believe large numbers of those who kicked the dogs did it on a second or third playthrough after having saved the kittens in their first run.)
And also take into consideration my earlier choice to drop the idea of regularly clearing out whole dungeons of all the monsters. This drops the total amount of lethal fights that PCs get into considerably and makes a much higher fraction of them actually directly matter. You get much fewer situations where the players would be killing bands of goblins or swarms of giant centipedes simply because they are there. This makes the life of an “adventurer” seem considerably less suicidal and makes it much more believable that relatively ordinary people would accept the risks that come with it. Think of the four hobbits for example. They didn’t sign up to clear out Moria or conquer Mordor. And the story doesn’t make them do that. I have no idea of their kill counts during their year long quest to reach the heart of their enemy’s power, but I think most of them would be able to count them on one hand. Or at the other end, my two favorite scoundrels Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. They aren’t selfless people full of endless compassion and driven to self sacrifice. But when they find themselves in situation where a terrible injustice has to be stopped, and they have the means to attempt it, they find their decency to not just stand by and ignore it.
Getting away from D&D’s class system probably might help with this as well.
And what is it all about?
Now we’re going to get really pretentious. When I was learning more about ancient cultures and their belief systems back in university, I got the strong impression that all civilizations with organized states and agriculture develop a belief that they are separate from nature and that humans are really much more similar to the gods. They are the masters of their environment, and in some cases the world really was made for them. Today it becomes obvious how that attitude leads to huge environmental problems and disasters, but to some degrees this has been going on for thousands of years. I thought it would be really interesting to come up with fantasy cultures in a world where there is absolutely no doubt that nature does whatever the hell it wants, the constant environmental changes are much faster to be more visible during a human lifetime, and people get inevitably crushed if they think they can make nature obey their wishes. There are no natural disasters. There are only extreme weather events. They only become disasters because humans build inadequate houses in high risk areas and have no plan B for when their human-build infrastructure is destroyed.
My idea for such a setting is to make it an extreme weather world, where typhoons, earthquakes, and active volcanoes are very common, and the nature gods in charge of these phenomenons pay no attention to the needs and wishes of mortals. This world is not made for people to live in and make use of. Going with my favorite Eldritch Abomination quote: “You exist because we allow it. And you will end because we demand it.” Except that the nature gods wouldn’t bother explaining themselves to mortals.
One analogy I came up with and that I quite like is that in this world, people aren’t the apex predators like bears or tigers, but sit more in the middle like weasels. They certainly are predators who have no trouble killing almost everything else in their weight class and can even take on other animals considerably larger than themselves. But there’s absolutely nothing they can do against a bear and their only option is to get out of the way. (Not counting wolverines and honey badgers. Those are just fury and madness.)
To bring in the Dying Earth tone, even though it’s a world that is full of life and going nowhere, my idea is for people to have an approach to history that nothing that they do will have a lasting impact in the long run. They can build cities that might grow into small kingdoms, but it’s inevitable that sooner or later something will topple their walls or destroy their farmland, and the people will return to the wilderness to live among the savages, with their descendants knowing nothing of their civilized origin. That’s how it always has been, and always will be. The broken ruins that stand as proof are found everywhere. Refusing to see the signs and abandoning the dying cities for a better life elsewhere will only make the inevitable end worse.
Of course, there are always some powerful people who don’t accept this fate and believe that they have the strength to avert this doom and create a legacy that will last forever. And some of them are turning to dark magic to pursue this goal or even seeking immortality. They always fail, but the terrifying results of their foolishness survive in infamy long after other kings and cities have been forgotten.
I think this is a really cool concept with some real solid substance to it. But it never really came up during low-level exploration adventures. But I think it might be more useful in a campaign with a more narrative focus, where the sorcerer king doesn’t have to be a 15th or 20th level wizard. As with many other things, I don’t really have anything definitive nailed down on this front yet. But it’s something I want to focus on much stronger going forward from here.
To wrap up this sprawling abomination of a past, this is where I stand right now in both my hindsight reflection on previous campaigns and with my lofty ambitions going forward. Currently I am feeling that I don’t really need to change much regarding the worldbuilding of the setting. I don’t think there’s any need to drop existing creatures or create new ones, alter the general geography, or come up with different ideas for the cities. I don’t seem to have to make any changes to my big box of toys. Instead, I feel this process will be a lot more about how I could be playing with them in different ways, and perhaps spend a lot more time with some of the stuff that’s so far been lying unused at the bottom of the box.
So yeah, rambling’s over. I worked three days on this without any real major revelation to share with the world. This is what I got right now, but there’s been quite some response from a number of people for this topic, so I hope it’s not been completely in vain. I’m looking forward to see where this is going myself.