The Sprawl

Well, silly me…

After I had my initial idea that Night City with its districts and gangs could be an interesting setting for an alternative Blades in the Dark game, I soon decided that I’d actually rather run something more along the lines of Apocalypse World. Blades’ system of fighting for turf really only makes sense if you want to play aspiring crime bosses, but doesn’t fit for parties who simply want to secure their neighborhood or megabuilding. Apocalypse World is in many ways based around the idea of the players establishing themselves as a powerful force in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, even though it doesn’t say so outright, which I think is a better approach for up and coming lowlifes in a cyberpunk city.

And after several days of fiddling around with Apocalypse World to replace the psychic powers with a hacking system, I discovered that someone else had already done something similar many years ago, and turned it into a full game and a proper book.

If you are familiar with Apocalypse World, then The Sprawl immediately shows that it’s a very close descendant. There are of course many different games that use the underlying dice mechanic and principles of Apocalypse World, but this game is much closer to the first game that started it all than for example Dungeon World or Blades in the Dark. The Sprawl is the first other game I’ve seen that retains most of the basic moves from Apocalypse World mostly as they are. The names have been changed to a style that (the author assumes) have a more cyberpunk feel, but you still have the Go Aggro and Seize by Force moves that make conflict scenes in Apocalypse World so unique. The playbooks for different character types are all completely different from those in Apocalypse World, and while I think the Hardholder and Chopper could have been really fun in a cyberpunk setting, the ten playbooks of The Sprawl really cover all the character archetypes you could ask for in a cyberpunk game very well.

The Sprawl seems to be particularly well suited for a game set in Night City and I’ve seen people even describe it as an unofficial PtbA version of Cyberpunk 2020. The names are different, but it does have playbooks to play a Ripperdock, Media, or even Rockerboy. I looked at the new Cyberpunk Red once and was immediately “yeah, no thanks”. Even though I find the setting quite compelling (as genetic cyberpunk as it is), I really am way past the point where I want to deal with a four page flowchart to get all my little +1s here and +2s there. Those things don’t help getting invested in the story and spontaneous going with the flow of a chaotic action scene. They do the opposite. PtbA rules really are the way to go for the kinds of games that I actually have an interest to run.

Unfortunately, The Sprawl suffers from the same problem that almost all PtbA games seem to have. The bad example set by Apocalypse World that has been slavishly copied by anyone else. The game attempts to make the rules filled with style by using elaborate slang everywhere it can when a normal, self-explaining word would have done the job. I don’t know why the mechanic for hoping that an ambulance reaches you before you die is called “Acquire Agricultural Property”. Apparently it’s a joke on “Buying the Farm”, but I am a German fluent in English. I don’t know what that expressions means either, or what it has to do with dying. How am I supposed to explain this rules to players who are just as clueless? It’s only the most annoying example, but the issue is persistent throughout the whole book. Which, when you are trying to explain a very unconventional game system that is completely different from mainstream games, is bad!

One thing that I’ve seen people criticize rightfully is that The Sprawl presents a system for doing jobs for hire and does it in a way that implies that all the game will ever be is “Mister Johnson of the Week”. Get a job, prepare for the job, do the job, get paid for the job. And repeat until everyone gets too bored to continue. That seems like a good system for a couple of casual one-shots, but not for an ongoing campaign. But the mechanics as written actually work for a much wider scope than this. Since the real currency in The Sprawl is not money but reputation, there’s nothing stopping the PCs from giving them “jobs” themselves, or doing something for others for free. And almost all roleplaying adventures in any genres consist of an initial investigation followed by an infiltration. Looking for a friend who’s been having trouble with a gang really is no different from being hired to look for someone else’s friend who’s been having trouble with a gang. The PCs still pull of the same heroic and leave behind the same chaos in their wake, so their street cred should be affected the same way too. Calling the first and last phases of the cycle “get the job” and “get paid” creates the false illusion that it’s really about the exchange of currency. Which it is not. I think that The Sprawl is actually much more versatile than it Mission Structure falsely implies. Because as I said, even in a sandbox campaign, you always have the same cycle of establishing what the PCs want to do, preparing for it, doing it, and then raking in the spoils. To run The Sprawl as an open-world sandbox, one does not really need to make any changes to the rules. All it takes is a more open approach of what fiction the mechanics can represent. It only happens rarely, but The Sprawl is one of the very few games that I read and want to run as they written, without immediately having a number of house rules in mind before I’ve reached the end.

Describing Consequences and Resistance Rolls

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.

Kaendorian Magic in Forged in the Dark

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 Wyrd

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.

Rituals

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.

Alchemy

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.

Forged in the Dark Probabilities

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.

Forged in the Dark

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, …)
  • Prowl (sneaking)
  • Skirmish (fighting)
  • 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.

Action Resolution

Taking an action in Blades in the Dark work the following way.

  1. The player describes what his character is trying to do.
  2. The player declares which of his character’s action ratings he will use for the roll.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

AW moves in BoL campaigns

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. But many of the concepts and principles of AW are quite fascinating and I’ve long been wondering how much one could adapt them for running other systems as well.

The core mechanic of Apocalypse World is the move. There is no initative 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 across the party. (In addition, 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 requires 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 various 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  and the 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.

Setting the Theme

Silly title? Probably. It’s not easy being both snappy and clever all the time.

The first step in creating a new setting is always to think about which existing works you draw your main inspirations from and serve as your primary references. It may be fully unconcious for many people, but you can’t create something new from nothing. The second thing that I think everyone should do, but a great many number don’t, is to give it some thought what your new creation is supposed to be about. Lots of fictional worlds, especially in RPGs, are not really about anything. And that’s the main reason why they are bland, boring, indistinguishable, and ultimately forgettable. With past settings I did make this crucial step, but then I immediately went ahead creating lots of content without really paying any attention to the themes. And the campaigns ended up simply being okay, not very memorable, and feeling somewhat generic. (Though I also partly blame this on sticking with D&D-derivative systems.) Self-awareness being the first step towards self-improvement and all this, now is another opportunity to do better.

I’ve already been doing a good amount of preliminary work on the setting, and out of the many ideas I came up with and threw out, some general overall themes did emerge. The core idea, that has fascinated me for years, is that complex human cultures throughout all of history have regarded themselves as the pinacle of creation. Beings so far above all other living things that they exist outside of the natural order and nature in fact exists to serve man. Above them are only the gods, who are immortal and live in realms removed from the world. But among the living things on Earth, man stands above everything, and man will live on even after death, in the realms of the gods. This seems to be almost universal among civilizations, with exceptions being small isolated cultures that live in places where the environment has not been transformed into farmland and cleared of most dangerous predators. Yet for the last generation or two, there has been a growing awareness and understanding in western culture that we can’t bend nature to our will, and it’s not a matter of developing better technologies. Instead of adapting to local environmental conditions, we have tried to force the environment to change to suit our needs. But nature doesn’t care about or needs, which directly led to many of the worst natural disasters of human history. Some people even go so far to say that there are no “natural disasters”. Nature just does what it always did, disasters only happen when people put their houses in the paths of natural forces or think they know how to improve the environment for their own benefit. We’ve had plenty of fiction over the last decades about a world altered so much by humans that it became inhospitable to humans. And now the survivors have to learn to live with the new conditions. Or they don’t. My idea for the main theme of this setting is a world with natural forces so strong, forests growing so fast, and beasts getting so big that it was never suited for civilizations. The spirits that rule over nature don’t care about what happens to people any more than to any other creatures, and people are far from the top of the food chain. It is a forest world with numerous small areas suitable for farming and free of most dangerous predators, but the limited space does not allow for growth or expansion beyond some tens of thousands of people. Beyond these small islands of relative safety lies a true primordial wilderness, a world that is majestic and wondrous, but also terrifying and cruel.

One major difference going into this setting compared to my previous ones is that I don’t approach it from the perspective of Dungeons & Dragons, with it’s levels, spell lists, and monster books, but from the perspective of Apocalypse World. Structurally, a world in which the environment restricts human societies from growing large is very similar to a world in which catastrophic changes to the envrionment reduced human societies to a very small scale. The situation in which people live, the needs they have, and the threats they face are mostly the same. Post-apocalyptic fiction often features extreme or even exagerated conflicts and violence because it takes place in settings of extreme or exagerated scarcity. It takes the complex and often abstract conflicts that are part of our own world, and human history as a whole, and reduces them to the very basics where everything gets much simpler. I don’t want to make this a dystopian setting where people live in misery and constant fear, but I find it very useful to approach the overall social situation, with its conflicts and factions, from the perspective of fundamental scarcities. What do people need but do not have? What motivates them to behave in certain ways that are typical for the setting? What makes them act agressive and foolish?

The first, and most simple scarcity, is a scarcity of farmland. There are only a limited number of places where the ground is suitable for growing crops, the vegetation not spreading too agressivly to clear fields, and the wildlife not too dangerous to settle downn. With farmland being limited, there is only so much food that can be produced. But even when you have enough to feed all the people, you also need to have surplus to store for bad years and to trade with other settlements. Farmland is the primary unit of wealth, and while the distances between major settlements make generally unfeasible to conquer land from neighboring settlements, it is the main source of conflict within communities. A settlement can not increase its amount of farmland, but families are constantly trying to get more land from their neighbors. The scarcity of farmland is the underlying basis for most local politics and power structures and affects who could be a potential ally or enemy to the players, and who they would have to approach to get things done.

The second scarcity is a scarcity of cooperation. Because communities are separated by often long stretches of wilderness, most of them tend to be fairly insular. Trade between settlements is a common thing, but nobody ever gets anything for free. And in times of trouble, most communities are entirely on their own. Their local trouble is not someone elses trouble. It might seem as a sensible course of action in the short term, but in the long term problems can grow into much bigger threats that endanger much larger regions. The indifference to the trouble of others is regularly a contributing factor to the rise of major threats. Cooperation is rarely given and never expected, but this also means that it is regarded with immense value when offered. Getting allies for their cause is a major challenge for the players, but the offering of assistance is a very strong bargaining chip and comes with great gratitude that may be invaluable in the long run. The difficulty in finding allies can be a frustration for players, but being persistent and taking risks will lead to immense rewards.

The third scarcity is a scarcity of understanding. It is in the nature of people to believe that they understand everything perfectly well and that they know all they need to know. But in reality, most people’s understanding of the wilderness and the supernatural is rudimentary at best and often outright false. But the confidence in their mistaken believes drives them to make decisions with terrible outcomes. Real dangers are being ignored and needless conflicts escalated because of people’s believes about how things work and what others want. Because resources are scare and the environment dangerous and often hostile, not all conflicts are caused simply by misunderstanding, and could be solved by explaining the truth. When there is not enough food, then there is not enough food. But every threat is being increased and every conflict escalated by people making decisions based on false assumptions. And it isn’t just that people are mistaken, but refuse to believe that they are mistaken. Understanding more about a situation and the creatures and spirits of the wilderness is always the most important part in dealing with a problem. Blindly charging in without a plan always makes things only worse. Attempting to communicate with the alien minds of spirits or gleaning information from the ruins and records of past settlements is always a crucial part in putting an end to threats that endanger communities.

Just yesterday I realized that these three scarcities very much overlapp with the three vices and three virtues that I picked as the basis for one of the most prominent religions of the setting. Greed, hatred, and pride are the sources of all ills. They are the reasons people do stupid things that lead to violence and disaster. Opposed to these are the virtues represented by the three gods of the religion. The God of the Fields, who represents generosity, the God of the Home, who represents hospitality, and the God of the Herds, who represents humility. The scarcity of farmland is connected to greed; the scarcity of cooperation is connected to distrust and resentment, and therefore hatred; and the scarcity of understanding is directly matching pride. Almost certainly not a coincidence, but simply the result of having thought about these and worked with them for several weeks.

Finally, it is critical to have a pretty good understanding of what kind of people the players will play, and what kinds of things they will be doing in the campaign. The themes I have decided on don’t really align with becoming powerful warriors through the fighting of many monsters and the amassing of great riches, and trying but ultimately failing to make D&D characters work in the Ancient Lands was probably the main reason that setting never led to the campaigns I envisioned. But Apocalypse World makes very different assumptions about what player characters are and what they do. Even though it’s never spelled out that way, AW is a system centered around being community leaders. Some of the character types lend themselves to loose canons, but the majority of them come with implicit or outright explicit ties to a home settlement. Three of them are leaders of large groups and two more are running essential services for the community. And all the others lend themselves to being very well known, either highly respected or feared. These ties to the community mean that the characters are automatically invested in the community. When the main defining trait of your character is running a temple or owning a tavern, ensuring the town’s continued existance is always going to be high on your list of priorities. And even if you play a character without such ties, you’re playing someone closely aqainted with the local priest or tavern keeper played by another player. In the past, my focus has always been on the wilderness and dungeons, and these are still where my passions lie. But having characters deeply tied to a home settlement does not mean that play has to be focused on that settlement. Most threats to the settlement come from outside and the people can’t afford to wait until they are clawing at the gates. To prevent trouble from reaching the settlement, the players have to go out and face them in the wilderness. Threats can come in many forms. Since I am a fan of the supernatural, spirits starting to act threateningly or monsters coming close to the village are always great options. But you can also have shamans and sorcerers trying to gain power and endangering the village in the process. And things can always be made more interesting by throwing some raiders into the mix. Raiders on their own are never very interesting to me, but they always make for a great complication in a charged situation.

My feeling is that this is a really solid fundation to building a setting with strong themes that run from the big picture down to the finer details and make it a world that has it’s own distinctive character that makes adventures feel and play out differently from what you can have in any other setting.

You can get the Tiger out of the Jungle…

Work on the Ancient Lands  setting more or less ended early last year because I just couldn’t get my dreams for a fantastic world fit together with the needs of fantastic adventures. Last winter I tried putting my creative energies somewhere else and started working on the medieval Baltic Sea dark fantasy world Dark World, but I lost interest in that pretty soon. Instead, I went back to making my alternate timeline for Knights of the Old Republic a reality. Which actually went quite well.

But still…

The idea of Bronze Age warriors riding on great reptiles through an endless forest dominated by strange magical beings just never completely faded from my mind.

And how could I? Once you’ve seen perfection, how could you ever be content with less?

The problem was never with the elements I wanted to include in such a setting. The reason things never really worked and came together was that I had painted myself into a corner with what I wanted characters and adventures within that world to be like. Somehow I got that idea in my head that I don’t wannt to run campaigns that are about such banal things like permanently chasing after piles of gold, or seeking glory in killing piles of enemies. Which is a valid aesthetic choice, but it turned out to just not work when you still approach characters and adventures with the mindset of Dungeons & Dragons.

Originally, my idea to make some kind of wilderness warriors campaign started with a fascination for the E6 variant of D&D 3rd Edition that cuts the 20 level progression down to 6 and then has characters gain more low-level abilities instead of becoming increasingly more powerful. Later I moved on to Basic/Expert and from that to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and finally to Barbarians of Lemuria. with a short detour through Symbaroum. But even though the later two are classless systems with more flexible systems for experience, they still come with very similar assumption about what a fantasy hero is and does.

But this summer, I finally managed to understand Apocalypse World. I had to read the whole book end to end probably five times, but even when I first read it a year before, I immediately became aware that there’s a really fascinating game hidden in the unorganized heap of rambling and unexplained game terms. At some point I had looked into Dungeon World, which is based on the same mechanics adapted for fantasy settings, but it tries to use the mechanics to recreate the style of Dungeons & Dragons. In the process, it loses what makes Apocalpyse World feel different.

Last year, Mick Gordon gave a great presentation at GDC about how he created the soundtrack for the new Doom. His instructions were that he had to create music that nobody had ever heard before, that fit the game perfectly, and that would be instantly loved by fans. Which he actually did, with huge success. And one of the big lessons that came out of that work was “to change the outcome, change the process”. And since I started to really dig into the rules of Apocalypse World and working out how it is meant to be used, I discovered this to be a really significant realization. For several years I had tried to create something that is unlike D&D, while still approaching like creating content for D&D. When put like that, it really doesn’t seem surprising that the whole effort repeatedly bogged down, even though I tried to start over again several times.

To get a different result, you have to use a different approach. And Apocalypse World is indeed a very different approach. Without getting too deeply into the specifics of the rules, one difference that impressed me the most is the approach to the different character types that players can play. Character classes are defined primarily by a set of abilities, very often in combination with a narrow set of equipment. These are all in turn based on tasks. Fighters do the frontline fighting, thieves do the locks, traps, and scouting, clerics do protection and healing spells, and wizards do the artillery spells and various support spells. In Apocalypse World, the various playbooks all have their suits of specific abilities, but for most characters all there’s a free choice from all optional abilities, and pretty much all abilities can be learned by any other characters as well. (Though you’re limited to a total of two abilities from other playbooks in addition to four abilities from yours.) And all characters can use all equipment equally well if they get their hands on it. Instead characters are defined by their role in society. There’s a character who rules over a small settlement or compound. A character who leads a cult, one who leads a gang, and one who runs some kind of bar. One character is an artists with a captivating personality, another has access to abilities that goad players to stir up trouble any time they run into important or dangerous people.

Because of this, you completely avoid the situation of the characters sitting in a bar and waiting for an opportunity to use their swords or spells to appear. Many of the characters come with NPCs who depend on them, who have expectations of them, or who just don’t like their presence. This is a game that just doesn’t do lone wanderers without connections looking for other people’s problem to fix. In Apocalypse World, you’re always a prominent somebody and problems come to you. To make this work, Apocalypse World is designed as being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of dangers, where there’s always a scarcity of somethhing that makes people do stupid and dangerous things. Even if you don’t seek riches or glory, staying put in a quiet place isn’t an option. When you have no food, you have to get some. And when you have it, you have to keep hold of it. This really is not a radically new idea. But it’s a very different one from the D&D adventuring party.

My ideas for an ancient forest world have never been post-apocalyptic. But it has always been about the treacherous wilderness on the frontier, beyond which lies a vast unknown home to strange beings and phenomenons. It is in many ways and environment with a great deal of structural similarities, and I found that all the character types from Apocalypse World translate very well to a fantasy wilderness. You live in an insolated stronghold surrounded by hostile wilderness and it is up to you to take steps to keep the mundane and supernatural dangers that are lurking out there from getting in. I had actually considered something along this line some years ago, but still thinking about adventures in terms of dungeons, monster stats, magic items, and experience point I just couldn’t figure  out how to make this work.

Learning how Apocalypse World approaches campaigns, player characters, and NPCs was a very fascinating and inspiring process. And all the while, I couldn’t help but think how all of it would translate to Bronze Age warriors riding dinosaurs through a vast forest ruled by strange beings. At some point, I had this image in my mind of “Dark Sun, but in a giant forest”. And with the default assumptions of Apocalypse World, this seems like a really good starting point for a redesign of that ancient forest that always keeps calling back to me.