Blades in the Dark – haunted by greatness

Blades in the Dark is the New Hot Roleplaying Thing. Written by John Harper and published by Evil Hat, it is a game about a crew of scoundrels in a haunted industrial city. While not directly Powered by the Apocalypse, it is a descendant of Apocalypse World. And just like its predecessor, it has spawned a plethora of adaptations to various settings, though only Scum & Villainy, a spacefaring game, is currently out. What sets it apart?

Much like its honored ancestor, BitD is a game focused on delivering a specific experience. The player characters are engaged in a criminal enterprise, with the ultimate goal to get rich and get out before the going gets too rough. And to get rich, they have to build an underworld empire. As far as hooks go, that’s a good one. It’s surprising how few games try to have players develop something other than their characters. But before we get to empire building, lets look at how the game itself is played. Get comfortable, this will be in-depth.

While the core mechanic offers the by now familiar gradation of success/success at a cost/failure, it uses a dice pool determined by the relevant action rating. The action ratings range from 0 (roll two dice, pick lowest) to 4, and there are 12 of them in total, split among 3 categories or attributes: Insight, Prowess, and Resolve. The definitions of what action ratings cover are somewhat vague on purpose, to allow players to try and argue their case for using a higher rating because of the way they approach the task. This works a bit too well – we end up arguing about which rating is appropriate more than I would have liked.

After you settle on a rating to use, you can get help from another PC as they take 1 stress for one bonus die, and push yourself and take 2 stress or accept a devil’s bargain – some complication that arises as a result of your actions for another bonus die. In many games, teamwork is an afterthought, offering a trivial bonus. In BitD, it often doubles the die pool and is cheaper in terms of stress than toughing it yourself. Even selfish characters (and they are all anti-heroes at best) jump at the chance to help out, as they know they’ll need help in turn. With a simple rule the game beautifully reinforces the group dynamic: it’s all of you together against the world.

Of all the dice you roll, only the highest matters with 6 being a success, 4-5 success at a cost and 1-3 a failure (well, unless you got two 6s, a critical success). Here’s where it gets unusual, however: the GM sets the position the character’s in and the effect the action is going to have. Position can be controlled, risky or desperate, with risky being the default. It affects just how badly things will go when the dice inevitably betray the characters. Worsening position is a common outcome of a bad roll. Whereas effect, which can be great, standard, or limited (technically also zero or extreme, but at that point common sense usually takes over), is the sum of potency – just how well suited your method is to the task at hand, scale – how large an area you’re trying to cover or how many opponents you’re trying to overcome, and quality – the difference in tiers between you and the target. More on that last one later. After everything is factored in, characters can push themselves and take 2 stress to increase the effect by one level or trade position for effect in either direction, meaning there’s always something they can do, even against insurmountable odds, so long as they have stress to burn or risks to take.

Quite a lot of dials, and a significant departure from the way PbtA games usually handle difficulty. In them, there are no situational modifiers to rolls, with difficulty typically reflected in the potential outcomes or narrative requirements to even be able to make the roll. See for instance these questions. That is, in PbtA games it’s largely left up to the GM to figure out how to frame the situation and reflect the difficulty through narrative means. BitD, however, offers a robust system that answer questions like “how do we handle trying to pick an expensive lock with custom-made tools while the room burns around us?”

Well, almost. In practice, I’ve struggled with what a “limited effect success” means a lot. Even the example offered by the book comes down to “you have to roll twice”, which isn’t very satisfying.

In addition to action rolls, there are fortune rolls which are meant to cover situations where PCs aren’t directly involved, or the outcome is uncertain and no other roll applies. It is a “zoomed out”, more abstract mechanic, as it doesn’t have positions or initial effect levels. Instead, the die pool is made up of whatever number seems appropriate, most often tier of the faction or phenomena acting, or action rating of a PC. At this level of abstraction, major advantages and disadvantages that would have contributed to setting position and effect level were it an action roll simply add or subtract dice. The end result is still determined by the highest die, and still broken up into similar ranges.

Did you catch the bit where a PC’s action rating is sometimes used for a mechanic which is explicitly meant to be about uncertain outcomes not directly linked to any action ratings? It’s a bit odd. In practice, fortune rolls are used by the PCs a whole lot, as they cover gathering information among other things, a major activity in a heist-ish game.

Progress clocks are another part of the core mechanics. They offer a simple way of tracking progress of long-term projects, complex obstacles or things like alarm level. The GM determines how many segments such a clock should have, and fills them in accordance with the rolls. Once the clock is filled, the project is completed or the event occurs. While not fundamentally different from, say, required number of successes in in D&D 4e skill challenges, progress clocks are much more visual. I’ve previously seen progress clocks in Apocalypse World 2e, and have no idea if they were present in the first edition or other games. In BitD, they are much more integrated into the rules, with many downtime activities relying on them. When trying to fill a clock, the effect level of a check determines the number of segments filled, 1 for limited, 2 for standard and 3 for great effect.

And finally, tiers. Everything and everyone has a tier in BitD, even if the fact isn’t particularly advertised. Factions have tiers and everything they own derives its tier from them. These range from 6 for Imperial Military to 0 for where PCs start – armed to the teeth with ambition and not much else. Tiers are mostly used when setting the effect level of an action or when making up a die pool for a fortune roll of a faction, including thugs PCs may hire.

I went into so much detail explaining the rules for a reason. While reading them, a neat picture starts to form. Tiers and effect levels, dice and clocks, it’s all about to come together, it’ll all click and make total sense once you comprehend the mechanics in their entirety and you’ll never need to look up rules again. Except it doesn’t. Action and fortune rolls are related and share terminology, yet they’re not quite equivalent. Further, the many fortune and fortune-like rolls scattered throughout the rulebook each have their own caveats.

Stress can buy you an extra die or greater effect. Your band’s tier helps determine the effect level, unless it determines how many dice you roll. Fictional situation determines the position, which can be traded for effect, unless it gives (or takes away) extra dice. Are dice equivalent to effect levels? Sort-of-not-quite-maybe. In action rolls, a 6 is a success at the negotiated effect level, by default standard i.e. equal to your tier; 4-5 can result in limited effect, while a critical success offers greater effect. In fortune rolls, 4-5 is the effect equal to your tier, 1-3 is tier-1, 6 is tier+1 and a critical success is tier+2 – everything’s shifted upwards. During downtime actions you can spend Coins after the roll to bump up the result to the maximum of “critical success” or tier+2. When you acquire assets, you can keep going, but have to pay 2 Coins per further tier. When you craft something, on the other hand, you only pay 1 Coin per increase in tier.

Confused yet? For a game with relatively light mechanics, there’s a lot of page flilpping each session. If I get sufficiently annoyed at this mess, I’ll try my hand at a Unified Theory of Blades in the Dark. And just to clarify, the individual rules are perfectly fine, create dramatic situations, and make sense. It’s only when one tries to synthesize comprehension does the system falter.

But let’s move on to the part of the game that’s not just “fine” but outright great. The game recognizes an issue most groups have struggled with when faced with a chance to make a plan. That’s where action grinds to a halt. Left to their own devices, players can endlessly go over all the what-ifs, unable to distinguish between the real obstacles they’d have to face that the GM invented and the hypothetical obstacles they invented themselves. Until, frustrated, they are pushed by the GM to settle on a solution which of course is nowhere near the solution that’s anywhere near what the GM thinks will work. We’ve lost a city this way, back in D&D 4e days.

It is basically the same world modeling problem that I wrote about way back when at the start of the blog. (7 years ago?? Wow). Every person playing the game has a slightly differing idea of how the game world works in their head. Trying to predict potential futures from slightly different perspectives using slightly different rules results in vastly different outcomes. But the worlds in players’ heads are similar enough that they don’t recognize the futility of this plotting.

“Forget all that,” says BitD, “Your characters are professionals. They have a plan. Jump in, and we’ll find out what it is.” Once players establish what they actually want to do, they work with the GM to figure out what type of engagement it’s going to be (assault/deception/stealth/etc), a missing detail like the point of attack, and make an engagement (fortune) roll which determines their position when they face the first obstacle.

When inevitably things start to go south, players can declare they have accounted for this eventuality in a flashback – maybe they bribed the local Bluecoats patrol beforehand, or stashed a weapon in this exact spot. The more extensive and unlikely the preparations, the more stress they have to pay. Likewise, they don’t need to decide what gear they have, just the overall amount of stuff hanging off them. As they need specific items, they simply declare they’ve had them all along, up to the stated limit.

This approach almost works, though this time it’s my group’s fault. They want to be really careful, which has at times resulted in them aborting a mission as they learn more about it. “There’s a chance we’ll make an enemy here? We’d never do this if we knew, so we didn’t.” The game fully expects you’ll make enemies, however, as you track your standing with various factions of Doskvol, and pretty much anything you gain you take from someone else. Getting my players (to be fair, not my regular group, so we’re not as used to each other’s style) to accept they can’t lead a cozy safe life as criminals has been a challenge. But, as mentioned, that’s our problem, not the game’s.

Once the PCs are done thievin’ and murderin’ and the score is wrapped up, the game goes into the most formalized part – downtime. Here, the group figures out the money, reputation, xp, and law’s attention the crew has earned, rolls to see what the world throws at them in the meantime, and finally each player performs two downtime actions such as working on a long-term project or removing stress. Yup, stress doesn’t clear on its own, so you end up paying for all the risks you took. This part of BitD has more in common with strategic games than roleplaying – think management elements of X-Com or Darkest Dungeon between missions.

By offering rules for the “in-between” stuff that would have been handwaved in most other games, BitD both limits it and makes it more important. Players are put firmly in charge of their own destiny. There’s probably no world-ending threat. No mysterious strangers ready to dispense quests. But there’s also no cops conveniently forgetting about the crew. No simply making a thing you’ve been meaning to make. There’s just ambition and survival. Want it? Earn it.

There’s a bit of a missed opportunity here, I think. Downtime has too much survival to it, and not enough ambition. It would have been relatively easy to offer a mechanical way for players to spend downtime actions preparing for a tougher score – create a pool of free “stress points” to spend on flashbacks, a bonus to the engagement roll, or temporarily raise the crew’s tier for specific purposes, for instance. There’s some discussion of having to do a research project or even a whole other score to undertake a score in the book, but it’s all left up to the GM.

In a tightly regulated game where every misfortune is a result of a choice or a roll, every obstacle’s magnitude is derived from the tier of opposition, and even actions of said opposition are determined by an entanglement roll, it doesn’t feel right to just heap more trouble on the PCs. It’s the subtle difference between “they’re powerful and secretive, let’s say you have to research them before you can even think of robbing them” and “they’re two tiers stronger than you, rules say you have to do a 6-segment research clock to find an approach.”

GM fiat is a tricky subject. There’s always going to be a need to interpret the rules, it’s not a board game after all. Yet at times I’ve felt like I had too much power in my hands when choosing the consequences of a failed roll – a strange position for a GM to find oneself in. In a desperate position I could say a character broke their leg, or that things got somehow even worse, or the party has simply lost this opportunity. Considering the impact of harm and how long it takes to heal it, these are rarely equivalent outcomes.

When players roll well, they get to do what they wanted. When they roll poorly, it turns into a game of double-or-nothing. Stakes for failure keep escalating, while success still offers the same reward of doing what they intended to do in the first place. And that’s cool! The problem, and there really isn’t an easy solution to it, is that it’s always the GM that decides when the betting is over and the bill is due to be paid. Would be interestig to see a similar system that places this decision in the hands of players.

But we got sidetracked. To balance out the mounting criticisms of the game, here’s another feature that I love: crews as characters. At the start of the campaign, the players collectively decide on the “class” of their crew – what kind of scores they typically engage in. Just like with a regular character, this determines the abilities and upgrades the crew will have access to. It gets its own character sheet, xp, upgrades, and assets.

Again, the thing that’s typically handwaved in other games is provided with solid mechanics, giving it the attention it deserves. Crew rules, I believe, are singlehandedly the reason for the game’s popularity and its upcoming adaptations. Well, that and a successful kickstarter. While I’m sure there are other examples, I can only think of Ars Magica and REIGN as games where you get to together build something in a meaningful way. One is very heavy, the other is very light, BitD may well have found a sweet spot. And this format is very expandable, whether it’s a spaceship or an adventuring organization that you’re building.

After all this time dedicated to the mechanics, what about the setting itself? Doskvol is interesting, if just a bit barren. It’s all about the ghosts. The larger world is epic and bleak, though that doesn’t quite translate to the game. The sun is gone, the ghosts roam the wastes and bodies have to be burnt in special electric fires to prevent even more ghosts from arising. Electricity? Comes from demon whales humans hunt in the pitch-black sea. Metal.

Living in this metal world are industrial age people, largely unaffected by the craziness around them. Sure, there’s an electric wall around their city holding the ghosts at bay, and its streets are perpetually lit by electric lights, but they still go about their business. While reassuring in a way, it seems like the author started painting the world with grand gestures, but never got around to the finishing touches that would have made the entire picture shine. With bleakness.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see a horror-adjacent game that’s not Lovecraftian. On the other, ghosts just aren’t that varied as antagonists. There’re demons too, and those are quite scary, but there’s only so many a party can meet before they simply die. One, typically. There’re vampires, but those are just ghosts in bodies. Somehow, a steampunk world with criminals, magic, and ghosts feels empty after a while. Maybe I’m insufficiently familiar with the haunting tropes. There’s something creepy happening, must be a ghost. Booo.

I wish there was more. More (any!) examples of different ghosts, more craziness in the city itself, more character to its districts. These things are not entirely absent: there’s faction write ups and lots of random tables for ghost and demon attributes, plots and plot complications, streets and buildings and people. But most of these haven’t translated into actually useable material at our virtual table. Perhaps it’ll be different for you. To avoid sounding too negative, here’s a thing I greatly appreciated: the list of setting-appopriate names in one of the appendices. A small thing to be sure, but I’ve used it every session, and wish more games did it.

How does all of this fit together? The heists, the crew, the city itself? Say it with me: it almost works. Well, no. It works, and works really well, for a while. The greatest issue I have with Blades in the Dark, and if you got this far you know I have plenty, is that it outstays its welcome. There isn’t a natural ending point to a campaign in Doskvol. The book suggests a generic goal of accumulating wealth and retiring before you go mad, but that runs contrary to the much more interesting goal of advancing the crew. Here, the progression system plays a cruel trick.

Your crew can advance in tiers! It would take a whole lot of games, but you can end up running the entire city! There’s no grand overarching plot by design, as it’s all player-driven and improvisational. Unlike many other narrative games, BitD explicitly asks players to discover their characters through play, not start with a thought-out complex personality with goals and issues. Instead, they start with a few notes like the names of an ally and a rival. As PCs are dragged into the action we learn more about them, bit by bit. To the game’s credit, this part is really smart – when making certain rolls, players can get a bonus if there’s someone who can help them, *nudge-nudge*. At the same time, it means these allies mostly only show up for that one roll.

“Seasons”, as the book calls them, come to an end when most ongoing story threads are resolved. However, it inevitably feels like the time to get back to basics and make money now that the distractions are dealt with, rather than the time to wrap it all up. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if not for the other side of it: there’s only so many improvisational one-off heist stories about ghosts I can come up with before it gets stale; and given crew specializations, most of them have to be a specific kind of heist to boot – thieves gonna thieve, dealers gonna deal. Yet the reputation tracker keeps drawing us further in. There’s tiers to gain, upgrades to earn. Play one more score, go on. Ah, progression systems.

Paradoxically, the strongest feature of Blades in the Dark, crew rules, is also the root cause of its issues. That’s emblematic of the game as a whole – it holds many great ideas only slightly tarnished by the execution. And to be clear, I’ve had lots of fun with BitD. Here’s to a second edition.

Especially Nasty – Murder Mollusk

I’ve dug up this beauty from the depths of cloud storage (or should it be heights?), a kaiju boss fight. I mostly share it now because of all the titles the creature has.

A monstrous slug five meters tall and twenty long, with scythe-like claws as long as a man, it crawled out of the sea and headed straight for the nearest city. Seagulls fell from the skies in its wake, burned by its foul miasma, trees wilted as it passed. All that stood between it and civilization was a group of plucky heroes manning a defensive wall and an arcane McGuffin Vibrational Disruptor they’d just rescued planted on top of it.

Murder Mollusk

Polyp of Pestilence, Sovereign of Slime, Ruler of Rot, Crustacean Czar, Tarnishing Tyrant

Huge 8th level wrecker [BEAST]

Initiative: +11

Murderous bite +16 vs AC – 75 damage, 30 acid damage and the mollusk grabs the target if it’s not already grabbing a creature.

Miss: 20 acid damage.

Scything claws +16 vs AC (2 attacks against nearby enemies) – 50 damage.

Natural even hit or miss: the target pops free of all enemies and is flung away.

Miasma: When a creature is engaged with the mollusk at the start of its turn, it takes acid damage equal to 9 times the escalation die.

Flesh of Chaos: Whenever the mollusk is hit by a natural odd number attack, it spawns a chaos glorp nearby. Whenever the mollusk is critically hit or staggered for the first time, it spawns a chaos beast nearby (both creatures are found in the Bestiary). If the attacker is engaged with the mollusk, the spawned creature immediately engages them.

Nastier Specials (duh):

Bejeweled mollusk: The mollusk has glowing stones embedded in its chitinous hide. When an enemy misses with an attack against the mollusk, that enemy chooses one: it takes 10 acid damage; OR one piece of its non-magical equipment (something useful, but player’s choice) melts. Adjust skill checks or stats accordingly.

Steaming body: The mollusk’s foul stench obscures the air around it. Ranged attacks against the mollusk take a -2 penalty, or a -4 penalty if the attacker is far away.

AC 24

PD 22    HP 420

MD 18

Everything Rots

If the Vibrational Disruptor is not operational at the start of the mollusk’s turn, decrease the escalation die by 1 and destroy one fortification or war machine.

Vibrational Disruptor

A sphere of concentric rings creating a teeth-shattering hum when they resonate. d6, d8, d12 and d20 symbolize the speeds at which they rotate. A character operating the machine can spend a quick action to activate it for the turn to roll all the dice. Another quick action can be used to adjust the settings and re-roll any of the dice. If at the end of a round any dice are common denominators of others (e.g. 4 and 8), everything in the fight takes those dice in damage. 1s don’t count.

Ballista

Two ballistae are mounted on the wall. The character operating a ballista can use the following attack:

R: Anti-kaiju projectile +14 vs AC (one nearby or far away enemy) – 50 damage.

Limited use: the ballista must be reloaded between shots, which takes a standard action. Another character can do this.


If you have uncanny memory for monster abilities, you’ll be able to recognize a remorhaz deep within the slimy exterior of the Murder Mollusk. I’ve used it as a foundation before adding abilities to make it more of a boss monster. From what I recall, it showed up some distance away, giving the party a couple of rounds to shoot at it. There most likely was a sahuagin herald running ahead, whose main purpose was to announce all the titles of its god. And, despite being 4 levels below it, a defensive ability and other threats present on the battlefield, the party murdered the Murder Mollusk in about 3 rounds.

At the time, it prompted the post on boss decay, an abstract and slight of hand way of preventing abrupt death of our beloved bosses. In retrospect, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. 13th Age doesn’t have Solo monsters of D&D 4e, which were meant to stand up to a party of 5 on their own. They most often couldn’t due to action economy among other things, but at least the concept was there. At most, 13th Age has triple-strength (or Huge) monsters, which, unsurprisingly, pose a threat to at most 3 characters.

The implication is clear enough: don’t have a sole boss monster, add underlings of some sort to spice up the fight. And I did! But players can prioritize, save up their most powerful abilities for the boss, and squash it like a slug. Which isn’t exactly a problem, they feel like big damn heroes. But, y’know, I’d like my monstrosity to feel like a big damn threat before it dies. Not to mention the quick fight making the McGuffin we’d spent several sessions restoring almost meaningless.

Here, then, are a few alternative ideas to prolonging the average lifetime of a boss.

Shielding Minions

The boss gains resist all damage X, where X is twice the number of its mooks present on the battlefield. Start the fight with 10 mooks, and/or add a few every round or on some trigger, whatever suits the situation. Give the PCs a reason to not just nuke the boss.

Vulnerable While Charging Up

While the escalation die isn’t even, the boss’ defenses increase by 3. While it is even, they decrease by 2 instead. Of course, it makes a nasty attack while the escalation die is even. For bonus points, present an opportunity for PCs to hide from this attack instead of hitting the vulnerable boss. Tactical choices! And don’t forget to add other enemies to the fight so PCs have something to do while waiting for the boss to open up again.

Truly Enormous

An old idea of mine (I’m sure others have thought of something similar too), breaking up the gigantic enemy into several sub-creatures that have their own hit points, do their own attacks or grant it traits. A fight against such a boss is likely to be much more brutal: instead of the abstraction of damage, you’re chopping off its limbs. This is a much more involved approach as it likely requires designing everything from scratch. Guess writing up one such enormous boss monster will be my next project.

First Impressions – Gloomhaven

With two fantastically successful kickstarters behind it and a #1 spot on Board Game Geek’s top 100 list, Gloomhaven is the current darling of the hobby. Designed by Isaac Childres, it is a monumental board game, largest and heaviest of boxes I own. A tactical dungeoncrawling game with persistent world and character advancement, essentially a D&D campaign in a box. I’ve played 27 scenarios so far with my brother, and while we’re nowhere near done, there probably aren’t any major surprises, mechanics-wise, hiding in the box by now. Time for a first impressions review.

There will be minor spoilers ahead.

Tactics on top

At the heart of the game are combat scenarios. There are 95 of them in the book, plus a deck of randomizing cards to make your own. Each scenario comes with a map made up of chunky terrain tiles and smaller terrain features such as fallen logs, traps, chests, etc., split by a hexagonal grid. Scenarios have decently varying win conditions: kill boss/kill all enemies/loot specific treasure/get to exit/etc. Some even have special rules, like constantly spawning enemies or locked doors you have to open by pressing a button in another room. You won’t get 95 unique experiences here, there’s rarely a need to radically rethink your tactics, but the game has enough variety not to feel stale.

The scenarios scale the number of monsters to the number of players, and their level to the party’s average level and desired difficulty. Monsters’ level doesn’t simply increase their hit points and damage, but gives them features like poisonous attacks, damage resistance, or simply increased speed – and an ooze that goes from speed 1 to speed 2 is that much harder to kite. The challenge adjusts with the levels to accomodate the increasingly powerful characters.

This shifting balance is one of the most impressive features of the game. With very rare exceptions, the difficulty felt just right to us, games often coming down to the wire even as our characters leveled up or the party composition changed.

Quick tabletop quality paint job, don’t @ me

Each character comes with their own miniature and a deck of ability cards. With levels, characters gain access to more powerful cards, but the total number of cards they can take with them into a scenario never changes. Players start the scenario with all their ability cards in hand. These cards are split in two, typically with attack on top and movement on the bottom, and an initiative number between them. Each turn, players pick two cards out of their hand and reveal them simultaneously, with the leading card deciding their initiative. When their turn comes around, the player chooses the top ability from one of the two cards, and the bottom ability from the other. There’s always an option to substitute them for the basic “fight 2” or “move 2”.

Depending on the ability, the played cards are either discarded or lost for the remainder of the scenario – unless of course another ability or item brings them back. Discarded cards, on the other hand, can be brought back by choosing to have a rest. Short rest occurs at the end of a turn and loses you a random card, whereas a long rest takes the entire turn but heals the character a bit, refreshes their used items and lets them choose which card they lose. It quickly becomes apparent that managing the ability cards to make sure you have enough to actually complete the scenario is a key tactical consideration. You could clear the room with a powerful blast, but maybe it’s better to take an extra turn, suffer a few points of extra damage, but save the card for the next go around.

Monsters get their own ability decks, one per monster type. These are suitably varied and combine with the monster stats to make sure each creature poses its own tactical challenge. Monster ability cards are drawn at the same time as player ability cards are revealed, introducing uncertainty while offering a chance to adapt to it. It’s very satisfying to avoid a monster’s attack by staying just out of reach, and frustrating to waste a turn because the enemy zigged when you prepared for a zag. That’s where the true mastery of the game lies, in having a backup plan in case the monsters decide to do something unexpected.

Attacks are resolved by drawing from an attack modifier deck which adjusts the basic attack number one way or another and can have other effects. Each player gets one, and monsters get their own. Yes, this game is full of decks. As characters gain perks from completing battle goals and leveling up, they get to modify this deck. The list of possible modifications is, again, unique to each character and ranges from removing or adding certain numbers to applying status effects with the attack. Curses (zero damage) and blessings (double damage) that are gained through other abilities or events also get mixed into these decks.

Finally, there are 6 elements that are created by certain abilities and consumed by others for extra effect. As you can’t use the element you’ve just created, and the elements fade after two turns, you have to plan ahead to set up a combo for yourself or your party members, and hope monsters don’t use these elements first. This subsystem is a bit fiddly, but satisfying when you actually pull it off on purpose. More often than not, it’s just a bonus that occurs unintentionally. Element management would probably get more involved with 4 players creating and consuming elements left and right.

Each character we’ve played with so far has been very different, from a fairly stereotypical caster and a tank to a summoner and an angry earth elemental that creates obstacles on the battlefield, then proceeds to throw them at enemies. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what other classes bring to the table.

Lots of elements and subsystems, how does it fit together? Like a dream. Once the rules click for you, this behemoth of a game soars. The scenarios are tense, full of difficult decisions and satisfying moments when plans come together. Battle goals (yet another deck) and coins dropped by enemies add an extra complication, forcing the players to weight the extra little bit of advancement that will be useful in further games against taking a risk here and now. I wouldn’t call the combat puzzle-like, as that implies there’s a correct solution to it. Rather, I’d say it’s almost chess-like, with long-term consequences to every move. A typical scenario takes about an hour to play through, but you’ll hardly notice the time pass.

Campaign on bottom

Spoiler: there are locations on this map.

All the combat scenarios occur in and around the eponymous Gloomhaven, a fantasy trade hub and a bastion of civilization. I’d be very surprised if the world of Gloomhaven wasn’t Isaac’s homebrew D&D setting. While you won’t find the common elves and dwarves here, there are not-orcs and not-gnomes as well as omnipresent humans, but also occasionally psychic ratfolk, elemental heart people, civilized tieflings and the like. It would have been nice to have some sort of primer like the one linked in the game itself, as it just throws terms at you and expects you to figure it out.

By and large, the world isn’t crazy enough for it to matter: there’s various people, undead, demons, dragons, etc., all behaving roughly how you’d expect. Not once did we feel like our growing familiarity with the setting was in any way rewarded, at least so far. Perhaps there could have been events that challenged the players to demonstrate their understanding of the world by, for instance, following the proper etiquette when meeting Inox tribal leaders. Not that the game needs this kind of challenge, but it would justify having a unique setting.

While that’s wishful thinking (there will be more of it), there’s a perfect vehicle for this kind of test in the game – city and road event decks. These start at 30 cards each, and you draw one followed by the other each time you set out on an adventure. Each card presents a situation, followed by two options. The outcomes, printed on the back of each card, can take into account your reputation (from +20 to -20), what characters you have in the party (which makes 4-player parties more likely to succeed), or simply your willingness to part with gold. In turn, you may be rewarded or penalised with status effects for the next scenario, new cards in the event decks, access to new scenarios, etc. Some cards get put on the bottom of their decks, others are permanently removed from the game. There’s a larger set of cards waiting for their turn to be added, which may happen due to scenarios being completed, characters retiring, and so on.

Characters retire once they complete their life goal, which comes from yet another deck of cards, and features goals such as “kill 20 elite monsters” and “complete x scenarios in a specific region” – something you’re meant to pursue for 10-20 games. These life goals also unlock new characters, though you’re not obligated to immediately pick them.

As you complete scenarios and random events, you will occasionally increase Gloomhaven’s prosperity, which adds new items to the city shop, unlocks yet more scenarios and a bit of plot from a separate booklet, and determines the starting level of new characters. The latter helps avoid having to advance through the lower levels over and over, and prevents a new character from being completely outclassed by the veterans in the party.

Each scenario is represented with a sticker on the foldout map, to be ticked once completed. At any given time you’re likely to have 5 or more open scenarios to choose from: side quests, plot branches, prerequisites. Every now and then, your choices lock you out of attempting a scenario – can’t help the dragon if you killed it. This leads to a silly fear of missing out on content in a game brimming with it. This great fan-made mostly spoiler-less scenario flowchart shows the branching of the main plotlines, an impressive sight.

So far, we haven’t encountered any “bugs” in the way scenarios are linked and locked, always a fear in this kind of a game. On the other hand, there are a bunch of scenarios we can’t do anymore, but are hesitant to cross off as game state might change in the future, unlocking them. It would have been helfpul for the scenario book to note when we’ve definitely locked ourselves out of a scenario.

Finally, on top of the map there is space for global achievement stickers which track the change in the state of the world and overall plot, like the current rulership of Gloomhaven, fate of an unspecified artifact, and familiarity with ancient technology (interact with it enough times and you’ll get to open a sealed envelope).

There’s a whole bunch of progression systems here: random event decks, access to scenarios, prosperity, character progression, equipment. Trouble is, players have barely any strategic control over any of it. Progression happens on its own as you play, creeping inexorably onwards. You can pursue plot lines to their completion, some of life goals care about locations, but that’s about it. There’s rarely a reason to pick an available scenario over the next one, as their payouts are unknown unless you cheat a bit and look ahead. And even if you do, it doesn’t usually matter. Whichever scenario you choose, you’ll always gain some xp and gold, and often one or more other things. This is a huge missed opportunity which undermines the entire point of a progression system.

Progression system keeps players coming back, in a way that simply having a massive book of scenarious wouldn’t. A large part of that is a sense of ownership, of making decisions, setting and reaching goals. Unfortunately, that’s missing in Gloomhaven. There’s a map, but locations don’t mean anything. There’re choices, but they only determine whether you do one scenario or another. There’re consequences, but they’re confined to a single card added to an event deck, to be drawn some time in the next 30 or so games and removed form the game forever. Even the seemingly major consequences you can get at the end of a plot line at most modify your reputation and town’s prosperity a bit, and add a sticker to the board. There’s even a scavenger hunt for a [REDACTED], yet it adds up to playing scenarios until you get all the pieces.

Putting stickers on a board does not a legacy game make. Neither does having a map a campaign make.

It’s understandable the designer didn’t want to mess too much with the tactical core of the game, but I think the campaign layer could have been much more meaningful without disrupting the tactics layer, and without making an already complex game much more complicated. Following are a few ideas, and bear in mind ideas are easy, implementation is hard, and there could well be good reasons why nothing like this was put into the final game.

Use the regions of the map: have a separate road event deck for each of them, just a few cards to make sure they come up regularly. Modify it as the state of that region changes. Tired of being ambushed by bandits? Go and deal with their hideout to remove their card. Tie a unique resource to each region that you gain whenever you do a scenario there, to be used for specific town upgrades instead of the generic prosperity. Want better weapons? Go adventure in the mountains to get that ore. Have global effects, even if they’re small, like adding a curse card to everyone’s attack modifier decks while a Bad Thing is happening. Basically, give players a reason to choose one scenario over another, to feel like they’ve accomplished something that’s not just ticking a box on the map.

Physical aspect

The elephant of a box in the room. Gloomhaven is a huge game, largest in my collection. That’s not a problem on its own (though don’t repeat my mistake of trying to bring it via public transport to a friend’s place). No, the problem is that the box is not enough. Here’s what it looks like with the hodge-podge storage and organization solution I’ve implemented:

Cat for scale

The box hides the worst of it. I went with envelopes to store monster tokens and action decks, and they just don’t fit together nicely. There was a plastic insert in the box, but it didn’t fit sleeved cards so out it went. There’s a third-party organizer, but it costs nearly as much as the game itself, and that’s before shipping to Australia.

Organizing board games can be tricky. I’ve engaged in occasional foamcore construction. I have a bagful of sealable plastic bags, a plastic organizer or two lying around, a business card holder. I’ve used all these and more, and it’s not enough. Gloomhaven is the first game I’ve had that’s all but impossible to organize on my own. And that’s not acceptable. It’s not enough for publishers to throw all the components in a box and call it a day, and they finally start to recognize it. Plastic bags are commonly included nowadays. Fancy plastic inserts are a popular stretch goal in recent kickstarters.

Board games are physical objects. They can leverage this fact to invoke a sense of magic, but there’s a flipside, to this, too. No matter how brilliantly the game is designed, it still has to be set up and put away every time it’s played. Neglect the physical aspect, and instead of a sense of magic it will invoke a sense of gloom.

Should you get it?

With a third pritning of Gloomhaven planned for July 2018, this question is likely the reason you’re reading this review. Desplite the hype, Gloomhaven is not a perfect game, and there’s plenty it could have done better. If you’re after a tactical combat game with solid character advancement, it’s the best there is and you won’t be disappointed. If, like me, you’re after a “D&D in a box”, temper your expectations a bit.

Alternatively, as a friend of mine put it after one game that didn’t sell him on Gloomhaven, “With how much time it would take to play through this, you might as well play an actual RPG.” Which is an interesting point, and if you’re after a similar heavily tactical combat experience, you may wish to consider D&D 4e. You’d probably get it at a discount in your friendly local gaming store, now that 5e is out.

Gloomhaven is a lot. I wish it was more.

Musings on Perfection

We’ve wrapped up our Apocalypse World campaign recently, and it’s left me pensive. Throughout the game, I embraced the AW maxim: “play to find out what happens”. Embraced it to such an extent that I discovered the true “motivation” of the psychic maelstrom (the not-really-well-maybe-antagonist of the world), doubling as the moral lesson for the entire campaign, as I opened my mouth to deliver it. It fit with everything that came before, mostly. It worked. But would it have worked better had I figured it out beforehand? Generalizing, just how much of the game world should we figure out at the start of the game, and how much of it should be left uncharted? See also the Dungeon World principle: “draw maps, leave blanks.”

Roleplaying games are a unique medium. A live one-off show where performers are also the audience. There are no rewrites in it, no fixing it in post, no rehearsals. Dice fall, characters make choices, the world changes. Well, that’s not quite true. We can amend what happened, fudge the rolls, rethink. We can fix mistakes, as long as we catch them quickly. Though when we do, the emotional impact is inevitably lessened.

Point being, RPGs are inherently chaotic. They by definition cannot be perfect, not like a static, complete work can be. The more input players have, the more input the game has, the more we relinquish control over the events, the more entropy we invite. Entropy leads away from perfection, but it can lead to life. We don’t want the high entropy system of everyone just yelling at each other while the dice are on fire, and can’t have the perfectly crystalline structure of static media. We want to find the right temperature and the right conditions that would let our games come alive.

What flowery nonsense, what does it even mean? Take combat, the most regimented activity in most RPGs. We don’t, generally speaking, plot it out. Instead, we trust that once we throw enough orcs and heroes into the same room, swords will clash and fun will be had. However, there’s initial preparation, in some systems a lot of it, in figuring out character and monster abilities and stats, terrain, likely monster tactics, etc. Then we let the dice and the players decide how things turn out. The game provides the elements, the GM picks the right proportions, then together with the players they throw these elements together. Cool and funny and epic moments arise out of this chaotic mess. Combat is not perfect, but it is often fun.

This is what I’m musing over: how do we know we’ve done enough to prepare the initial conditions of the entire game, the way we can be reasonably sure we’ve prepared for a combat encounter? Write out everything, and you have a pretty yet lifeless crystal railroad, players enacting the play. Write nothing, and there’s just a few incoherent story blobs flopping around on the table which may or may not converge into something meaningful. And that’s not even getting into a common mistake of many novice GMs, writing a whole setting that the players will barely see.

Apocalypse World, the game that prompted this post, does a really good job of guiding the GM through at least some of the campaign prep: everything and everyone is a threat, it says. Threats have wants, so no matter how the circumstances change, you’ll know how they react. They come at you from different directions, so make a threat map. Wherever the PCs go, whatever they do, there’ll be a threat there to do onto them. The GM Principles and Moves further help shape the game into a volatile, tense experience. Even the game engine itself, being a narrative rhythm engine, throws curveballs at players and GM alike.

Writers often talk about their characters taking on a life of their own, dragging the story in unexpected directions. In RPGs, the characters do have a life of their own through the players controlling them, and the dice wreak additional havoc. All you’ve got to do is let them. By leaving answers to fundamental questions up in the air, allowing them to emerge from the game seemingly on their own, we give ourselves an opportunity to not only be surprised, but also come up with something we normally wouldn’t have.

If you’ve played with the same group of people for a long time, they learn your storytelling habits and favorite tricks. Many times now, my players had guessed the underlying plot half way through the game. That’s harder to do if even I don’t know it. And the favorite pastime of many a GM, listening to their players speculate, becomes that much more meaningful: you won’t even need to rewrite anything if they have a better idea than you.

And so: just how much should you know about the game before you run it? There is no clear answer to this one, no one-size-fits-all recommendation. If nothing else, it depends on how comfortable you are with drawing connections between disparate plot elements on the fly: not just improv, but integrating results of improv into a cohesive whole.

While I can’t tell you how many big answers you should have from the start, you should try and have all the big questions. “What does the psychic maelstrom want?” gives you something to build upon, whereas simply positing the existence of a psychic maelstrom merely offers you a cool thing which may or may not fit anywhere. A while ago, when I was only starting down this road, I wrote about the benefits of including players’ ideas in your games and managing the resulting chaos. In the latter post, I suggested the “Chekhov’s gunpile” method of throwing cool things into the game in the hopes that at least some of them will “fire”. In that metaphor, the big questions we pose at the start are the targets these “Chekhov’s guns” will hit.

Another thing worth deciding upon from the start is the main theme of the campaign, or at least of the current story arc – a suggestion I first saw in tremulus. Something as simple as “revenge” or “hope”. The players are not likely to ever recognize it, but it provides cohesion, acting as a hidden context for most plot lines that occur.

Most importantly, remember that you will sometimes miss the mark, and that’s fine. However good you get at GMing, you’ll make missteps, or the players will, or the dice will refuse to cooperate. Plot lines will not always converge in a satisfying manner, characters will not always get their due. All you can do is learn and try to do better next time, one imperfect game at a time.

The Magic of Cardboard

There’s a certain feeling one gets from a well-designed board game that video games cannot replicate: a child-like delight at the way things work. Video games can delight with worldbuilding, atmosphere, characters, plot twists; they can be well crafted – but they do not display craftsmanship the way board games do. An interactive fiction book such as Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy works just as well in an electronic format. In either case, one may enjoy the author’s or designer’s work, but only the actual book would make you marvel at the ingenuity of its maker. Board games are inherently a very limited medium: what you see is all there is. No calculations under the hood, no way to “cheat”. A smart board game is like a clockwork mechanism, fascinating in its own right, much more impressive than a digital analogue performing the same funciton because you see all the moving parts. It’s authentic.

Board games are physical objects, that’s what makes this not just possible but often necessary. All the information has to be present at a glance. There’s a similarity to video games here, and a critical difference. A good user interface conveys all the necessary information as well. In a board game, all the non-decorative elements are the user interface, and many of the same principles apply to their design. This UI has to be so good, though, that players are able to follow all the rules of the game based on it – the game can’t do it for them. Video games simply don’t have this restriction.

Any surprises a board game may hold have to be not just prepared before hand, but concealed within its structure. This sense of discovery, of “I didn’t know you could do that”, is one of the main draws of Legacy games. Putting stickers on your cards, drawing on the game board? That’s mindblowing. Changing the map or improving abilities in a video game? Business as usual.

Ingenuity and craftsmanship obviously goes into the making of video games as well, but it’s unseen and unimportant to the player. From memory allocation tricks to differential equations that determine the damage an ability does in an MMO, we the players don’t interact with it in any way. Instead, we get to enjoy the magic happening on the screen. With board games, we get to be magicians (this is the second post in a row I “name-drop” my nom de plume, but it still works, whatever). Cardboard and dice produce meaning before our eyes.

Eclipse player board (image taken from the Asmodee website)

Examples? Take Eclipse, a 4X space board game. As you use your influence (round tokens) to do things and populate planets (with square tokens), the administrative costs of your growing empire increase. Not an unusual concept for a 4X game. Instead of having to calculate or look them up, however, you simply look at the number revealed when you took the token off your board. There’s nothing you have to do but place the token in the first place. To borrow computer science notation, that’s O(1) time complexity.

Or 7th Continent, a CYOA-like survival board game. Once your characters learn how to use local resources to their advantage (by gaining a card like the one on the right below in their “journal”), they gain new capabilities on terrain tiles simply because these resources are drawn on them. Not as a separate resource icon, as a part of the illustration. In a similar situation in a video game, this bush would suddenly become an interactable object. From within the black box of the computer, we are presented with a new trick, fine. Here, though, the bush was always there. Nothing has changed, nothing up the game’s sleeve. Meaning out of cardboard.

7th Continent cards (image taken from Board Game Geek)

And a last example, One Deck Dungeon, a dungeoncrawling board game. As the title suggest, there’s one deck of cards that represents not just monsters and traps but also items and skills you may gain along the way. Once defeated, a player takes the card and tucks it under their character card. Want stats? Tuck it so only the symbols on the left side (blue magic sigil in this case) are visible – that’s where characters’ stats are. Want a new skill? Tuck it so the bottom scroll sticks out (the one saying ‘armor crush’), that’s where the skills go. And if you gain more stats or skills later on, they’ll just sit neatly next to one another. Or just take it for xp, the lantern symbols up top. That’s some information density.

Tzolk’in gets an honorary mention here for including actual cogwheels in its gameplay. Unfortunately, I haven’t played it myself, so a mention is all it gets.

Not every board game bothers. It’s easy to make another deck of cards, slap another scoring track on the side of the board, include a look-up table. And that’s fine, that works. Not everything can amaze. But that’s the point – board games can amaze.

Roleplaying games potentially can do so as well, but they rarely aspire. RPGs share some of the constraints of board games – everything also needs to be easy to calculate, look up, determine. Unlike board games, the focus is typically not on the dice and figures but on the fantasy they facilitate. There’s even various stigmas associated with overemphasizing mechanics in RPGs.

The fantasy of taking over the world in a board game is a nice bonus while you’re busy deciding on the best way to maximize your points. The maximization of whatever passes for points at a given time in a roleplaying game is a means to the end of, well, roleplaying. Sometimes. Many RPGs have an essentially board game-like mode – rules for combat resolution. In these games, combat is its own purpose, a source of fun. But even in them, the crafstmanship a good board game displays is rarely expected or demonstrated. This is largely due to the expectation of pencils and paper being already in use. Hit points? Write the numbers somewhere. Conditions? Scribble them in the margins. Initiative? Uhh, just figure out what works for you. There’s a certain abdication of responsibility, relying on the players to find their own way of following the complex rules. RPGs also, by their very nature, involve creative interpretation of circumstances, utilizing rulings when rules fall short.

Some RPGs do try to go the extra mile. Don’t Rest Your Head barely has any notekeeping, relying on dice pool manipulation to convey the escalating tension. Mythender essentially has the game about handfuls of dice, and a roleplaying part you are encouraged to perform at the same time. The most common criticism of D&D 4e was it being “too much like an MMO”. Which is utter nonsense, 4e’s crime was impementing the traditionally board game-like combat aspect of the rules with the rigour of a board game.

13th Age is the standout to me, as it is brimming with mechanical ideas that make me reevaluate what I thought was possible or “allowed” – from flexible attacks that pack meaning into simple d20 rolls to undead librarians in the Eyes of the Stone Thief campaign book that do psychic damage when players speak louder than a whisper. In my own design work for the system, I’ve tried to pursue this feeling of amazement, from rust monsters that eat your Icon dice (normally a purely narrative element) to intellect devourers that literally live inside your head, meaning you’re the only one who can fight them.

And then there are mobile or desktop adpatations of board games. They tend to be clunky, as the way we interact with physical objects is unsurprisingly different from the way we use a mouse or even a touch screen. What’s worse, they miss the point enitrely. Board games are designed from the ground up to function with all their limitations in mind. They are magic because they have to be. A video game version meticulously replicating their rules is not unlike a virtual clock that simulates every spring and cogwheel of a real watch, or a movie that runs the text of the original book on the screen. Every medium has its strengths, I’d rather play a video game if I’m going to play on my computer, Steam knows I have too many.

The sense of magic board games instill fades after a while. There’s only so many times one can be amazed by the same thing. Soon, it’s just the way the game works, and we spare it no second thought. Perhaps this is why I keep getting new board games. Not just mindless consumerism, not an endless pursuit of the new hotness. While playing a game is nice, discovering its fleeting magic is what I’m truly after. And that means I’ll never be satisfied. What a strange self-realization at the end of an essay that started out as “aren’t board games neat”.

First impressions – Apocalypse World 2e

This post has been a long time coming. The first Powered by the Apocalypse game I’ve played was tremulus. While it was far from perfect, I still loved it and ran multiple mini-campaigns in it. A couple of one-shots of Dungeon World followed, and didn’t leave a strong impression. Despite theoretizing about it, I never got around to playing Apocalypse World itself. Post-apocalyptic dystotopias are not my thing, either aesthetically or ethically. More on that in a gratuitous personal aside, below. With the second edition of AW out, I thought it was a good time to finally try it. And, well. I love the AW campaign we’re currently playing. The rules? Hit and miss.

Apocalypse World 2e is a refined, definitive version of the game that spawned countless spinoffs. Chances are, since you’re reading an RPG blog you are invested enough in the hobby to know how AW works, but for the sake of completeness, here goes. Apocalypse World uses 2d6 + an appropriate stat rolls, which are exclusively done by players when they trigger so-called moves. They always follow the same logic: 10+ means you get what you wanted, 7-9 means you mostly get it but suffer some misfortune or complication as well, while 6- means the GM gets to make your life interesting. Moves further codify these results, offering ready options for the GM or player to choose from.

Another foundational element of AW is the way it formalizes the role of the GM (Master of Ceremonies, as the game refers to the role) – they get not just a list of principles to follow, but also a list of moves of their own. It covers most things you might do as an MC, though the rules don’t actually limit you to them. The MC is supposed to “make your move, but misdirect” and “make your move, but never speak its name”, two principles which demand we hide behind the fiction, pretending it wasn’t a bad roll that was the cause, and the consequences weren’t picked from a list. This is a tall order.

Something is supposed to happen when a roll doesn’t go the PCs’ way. That’s the promise of all the failing forward and yes-but games. And if it’s not immediately apparent what that would be, the illusion of fiction driving the game falters. The magician (hah) gets tangled up in all the invisible wires, calls for a pause and fumbles through the print out sheets looking for the list of threat moves. The not-quite-sewn-in-half PC lights up a cigarete. Dice sit in the middle of the table, glaring at the party with their snake eyes.

Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a roll in the first place. But I’m no longer a novice to this kind of games, not even a novice to PbtA, and these awkward pauses still happen almost every session. They’re not a disaster, just a regular reminder that narrative games are hard to grok. The best way to use the MC move list that I found was not to reference it in the middle of the game, but to reread it beforehand. That way, when a move is called for, at least some of the options come to mind.

MC moves are a slight of hand anyway. The MC is prompted to make one when a roll is failed, but also when the party looks at them awaiting input. That is, whenever they feel like they should say something – exactly like they would in any other game. The book offers guidance on when and how to use these moves, suggesting you limit yourself to setting up a future harder move and giving characters the opportunity to react until you get a golden opportunity handed to you. To this end, the recommended setup moves are “announce future badness” and “announce off-screen badness” – develop the situation futher until decisions are made, PC moves are triggered and dice come out. The golden opportunity mentioned previously is either a failed roll or something you’ve been setting up that comes together without interference. That’s when nastier moves come out.

To put this another way, the situation should gradually escalate until the PCs decide if they want to interfere, at which point they eat consequences of their choices and their rolls. That’s how games work in general. While there’s nothing groundbreaking about MC moves, they do drive the game forward. Every time there’s a lull in the action, the game says, don’t dawdle. There’s no “stop and smell the flowers” move. “Put someone in a spot”, instead. The MC moves list also effectively conveys the expectations of the setting, prompting you to do things you might not have considered otherwise. Warlords don’t just “make a show of force”, but can also “buy out someone’s allies.” Grotesques don’t simply “ruin something”, they “display the nature of the world they inhabit.”

Displaying the nature of the Apocalypse World is probably the game’s greatest strength. Everything is highly thematic, from principles and moves to playbooks. They all but scream at you: “hey, fucker, this is what you’re supposed to be doing, this is what AW is all about.” And yeah, there’s plenty of swearing in the book, certainly an unusual approach. Unusual, but thematic.

Going Aggro, one of the basic moves, is an interesting example of how AW reinforces its themes. You Go Aggro when you don’t just threaten someone, but fully intend to follow through with your threat. If you make the roll and the target chooses to force your hand and suck it up, you don’t have the option to reconsider. No dicking around, you said you were going to shoot them, BAM. It’s a harsh (apocalypse) world out there. Too harsh, perhaps, as my players frequently find they don’t actually want to use this move. Worse, this typically leads to a discussion of what they mean and if they’re prepared to follow through, which takes us out of a tense moment. They’re not the only ones who hesitate…


Gratuitous personal aside

I’m not a connoisseur of post-apocalyptic fiction, and I’m sure there exist counterexamples to this, but the one thing that always stood out to me is the utter hopelessness of it. The world is broken, most people are dead, and the best our heroes aspire to is growing their cabbages in peace, unbothered by warlords, zombies, etc.. The genre wallows in despair. That’s its point, to depict the collapse of society, to serve as a dire warning at best, and ridicule the very idea of cooperation in times of strife at worst. It shows protagonists struggle to survive this new savage existence with no time to dream of a better tomorrow. It is, in short, the opposite of what I’m interested in playing or writing about.

The setting of my own making, in which I ran multiple campaigns and based my to-be-finished-no-really novel is fantasy post-apocalypse, too. It gets bleak, and, I’m told, characteristically Russian. But the central premise of it is a simple promise: through hardships and sacrifice, you will leave this world a better place than when you found it. The stories I want to tell are about fighting for the future. Apocalypse World lost its past and is afraid to dream of the future.

As I was reading the rulebook, another personal issue became apparent. Life is worth very little in AW, that’s what the examples convey: “this guy is annoying so I’m gonna blow his head off.” It’s true to the source material. It works well with the whole irrevocable consequences thing. It also disturbs me, a feeling that’s been growing over the last few years. I’m fine with killing monsters in D&D. Even if they’re not mindless, they could be Evil, and that’s somehow good enough. But AW says: “make everyone human.” And humans are very rarely Evil, just fucked up.

These two objections are connected, of course. By killing someone, even someone evil, you deprive them of the possibility to be better in the future. To which AW would say: “fuck you and fuck your future.” While it’s just a game we play, and it lets us explore morality and worlds not our own, I still am revolted by this.

And so the damage inflicted by the loss of life has been the central theme of our game from the start, becoming more and more prominent as the campaign progresses. Hell, we held elections on this topic last week. I never explicitly told my players this, as that would diminish the point – more than anything in this game, I wish their characters would decide killing others, while a convenient solution, is not a good way forward. So far, they haven’t, and after each session they’ve thoroughly enjoyed I feel like I’ve failed. But that’s my problem, not theirs, and not AW’s.

Welp, this got long. As you were.


Where were we? Ah, yes. Setting expectations. In a game that tries its hardest to emulate the entire genre of post-apocalyptic stories, the psychic maelstrom stands out as something uniquely its own. And it’s cool, don’t get me wrong, a malevolent weirdness that permeates the world it broke. I find it strange, however, that it’s the one worldbuilding element that we are saddled with. Everything else largely depends on our setup and the playbooks players choose. But even if we don’t pick any of the pseudo-psychic playbooks, the maelstrom will still be there, a part of the core rules. And it worked out perfectly well for us, the apocalypse in our game was caused by the nanobot swarm gone mad, so the psychic maelstrom is the distributed consciousness of the swarm. But would it be a good fit for a Mad Max-ian game? No idea.

A different kind of strangeness is to do with the choices offered by some of the playbooks. The game is all about living in a struggling community. Players get gangs, followers, radio towers. Responsibilities and ties to others. Things to want, things to lose. And then there are playbooks like Battlebabe and Gunlugger, that simply don’t give a shit. And while others are immediately embroiled in conflicts and intrigues their playbook has thrust upon them, the antisocial characters have to be additionally prodded until they get involved. On the one hand, that’s appropriate. On the other, even the antisocial archetypes have social ties. Those they’ve killed or screwed over, those they try to protect or avoid.

Your Gunluggers is Not To Be Fucked With? Great, what’s the name of the gang that’s last tried to fuck with him and has retreated to lick their wounds? That’s the kind of questions I expected all the playbooks to pose, creating the world by the time players are done making characters. Not including these hooks in all playbooks feels like a missed opportunity.

AW does a great job reinforcing, over and over, how dangerous and volatile it’s meant to be. There is not status quo, the book says. Everything and everyone is a threat. There’s even a Threat Map to arrange these threats, though I didn’t find it very useful. The threat types (each comes with its own set of moves) didn’t always fit the actual NPCs, either, but they did give me a few ideas I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Overall, preparing for the game felt like setting up dominoes, some waiting for PCs to knock on them, others already falling. Another mantra – don’t prepare future scenes, play to find out what happens. Which meant that once I knew where all the “dominoes” were, I could just show up to the game session – a strange feeling, and not necessarily a good one. It’s one thing to relinquish control over the narrative and let things develop. It’s another to find out things aren’t actually developing because PCs decided the falling dominoes weren’t a big deal, and don’t particularly want to knock over others. The first two or three sessions we had have been somewhat slow. Thankfully, there’s enough chaos, ambition, and threats in the mix that it’s no longer an issue.

The game engine contributes to this chaos. Nothing is ever guaranteed, moves snowball, things escalate. A bad roll leads to more rolls leads to carnage. If preparing for the game is akin to setting up dominoes, the rules make sure they’re set up on a minefield.

Lifestyle costs are meant to help get things moving by exerting a constant pressure on the PCs: hustle, or starve. Take gigs, interact with the settlement. Great! Except once the things are in motion and dominoes are falling left and right, doing gigs is no longer interesting to the players, and looking for sources of income becomes a drag. I could have insisted on this rule, and we would have had a different, more desperate kind of game. Instead, we’ve agreed to mostly ignore it after a while.

Turns out, PCs, at least mine, are all too eager to run around talking to NPCs and one another. Half the time, I’d just kick back and observe them. And, with 5 players in the group, so would the 3-4 not currently involved in the dialogue. While I as MC can just enjoy the drama I helped create, participate as NPCs or plot ahead, inactive players just get to be passive observers – a less than ideal situation. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t recommend AW to groups larger than 4 players.

Another issue, and the biggest one I have with the mechanics, is the way armor negates combat. The game is centered on consequences and tough choices. Whatever unique moves you have, if you fail your roll, expect the worst. Except if you’re a combat monster in heavy armor (or an almost naked Battlebabe). The brutality of the main combat move, Seize by Force, which says you exchange harm once you’re in a fight, clashes with the guaranteed ability to ignore it. A bog-standard jerk armed with a bog-standard 2-harm handgun literally can’t do anything against a character wearing 2 armor.

Well, that’s not entirely true. By the rules, the MC can choose to say the player Suffered Harm even if it was 0, and so has to roll the corresponding move, which does have potential consequences. Still, that’s asking for a second unlikely roll after the first unlikely roll, just to have something happen, it’s somewhat obfuscated, and feels like picking on the character. Interestingly, Seize By Force doesn’t even have an option for a MC move on a miss, something that I think would have alleviated the problem.

If you got this far, you can see there are plenty of issues I have with AW, plenty of things I wish it had done differently, plenty of things that didn’t quite work for us. Despite these quibbles, the AW campaign we’re still playing is, in some ways, unlike anything we’ve done before. The rules fade into the background – just like they’re meant to. The principles hide in the back of the mind. At the forefront is the game world they help create. Messed up, farcical going on tragic, in-your-face, intimate. Apocalypse World.

What do you do?

An Election in the Time of Apocalypse

While I’m working on a comprehensive look at Apocalypse World, here’s a bit of fun from our ongoing AW campaign. An election was held in the home town of the PCs, with two of them participating as candidates. I had a simple idea for how to handle it, which got discarded when the PCs suggested the power should go to not one, but the top three candidates, forming an actual government. Not willing to just assign votes as I saw fit, I made a simple online form and offered it to a couple of online communities: the RPG.SE chat room, Powered by the Apocalypse G+ community, and my non-existent twitter followers. The players in our group also shared it with some of their other gaming friends. The results blew me away: 61 people voted!

Here’s the info I provided:

You are denizens of Hub, main town of the surviving civilization, where train tracks meet. Things have been somewhat hectic lately. The local warlord had been killed. Then the new warlord had been killed. Then the not-really-a-warlord who took over had a change of heart and declared elections instead, sight unseen. He’s since also been killed.

Threats and weird shit are everywhere: Swarm Children are infiltrating the town; Thomas the Train Warlord is on his way, expecting tribute; bones of all the people who died during the apocalypse have fallen from the skies. And there you are, gathered in the town square, participating in a snap election called two days early. Choose three people you’d like to lead you into the bright future of the Apocalypse World!

//Completely by accident, we ended up with pairs of people vying over three spheres of influence: military, economic, principles. Choose one from each, or not.

And no, I’m not telling which ones are the PCs.//

Candidates:

Unicorn Jones: Law & order, anti people-murdered-in-their-homes-with-a-machete. Stranger.

Camill: Fearmongering (justified) and a small army. Original warlord’s sister and second in command.

Domino: Prosperity through trade and negotiation. Owner of the pizza parlor. Currently in a coma.

Timpanee: Populism & complete deregulation. Wealth & drugs for everyone! Disgraced trade overseer.

Mouse McGee: Helping those in need, stop-fucking-killing-each-other. Town medic, runs an orphanage.

Chan6: Transparency of government & freedom of speech. Radio host.

And here are the results (Google Forms are terrible at exporting multiple choice questions, so I took a screenshot):

Turns out, denizens of Hub really like the idea of not being murdered, who knew. The first and second place were solidly taken, but the third was up for grabs. And then there was the dark horse candidate, Timpanee. Who really didn’t have all that much to offer… other than being backed by a secret cannibal lobby. Because of course he would be. And so we went into the game with a three-way fight between Camill, Chan6 and Timpanee over the votes.

Now that the elections are over, I can reveal that Domino is the Maestro’D and Chan6 is the News. Domino didn’t really stand a chance, what with being in a coma. An unfortunate combination of failing to deal with an overambitious employee (Heff, also the ringleader of the cannibals) and then not being able to attend the pre-election session would do that to you. As for Chan6, he wasn’t quite certain he wanted to win, and definitely not if it meant Camill not getting in. The party were correctly worried she wouldn’t accept not being in power, and would just have her army take over.

To handle the last-minute campaigning, I grabbed 10 tokens to symbolise undecided voters, and dropped them next to the names of candidates they were convinced to vote for. I shouldn’t have bothered. All the campaigning was done in favor of Camill, and all of Timpanee’s efforts were rebutted. The town should really look into anti-Brainer-campaigning laws.

Realising his pawn that would allow him to practice cannibalism in the open was about to fail, Heff tried to get into the radio tower (sail-powered pirate radio train) to make his pitch. Instead he got cut by the Battlebabe, shot by the Brainer, and ultimately finished off in full view of the crowd by Chan6. Poor Unicorn Jones nearly had an aneurysm.

And so new day begins for Hub. Camill, Unicorn Jones, and Mouse McGee are in charge. Camill fully expects to be able to do whatever she wants, leaving civilian concerns to Unicorn and Mouse. And there are no PCs in power to keep her in check, a shame. Then again, the town has spoken, and they want peace. Perhaps that will be enough to make Hub a better place.

Season of Bones, second “season” of the game, ends. Domino has feelings for Camill. Unicorn Jones, who came to town looking for his father, is about to find out the Hubble, town’s warband and his prospective underlings, mostly consists of cannibals. There’s a reason his father’s body was never found. Defiance the Battlebabe is still playing speed chess, and won’t stop until she’s in charge. Thomas the Train Warlord is coming. Season of Judgement begins.

Poor Heff, an “ethical cannibal”, all he wanted was to openly make human pizza out of those already deceased.

Huge thanks to everyone who’s participated in our election! With your help, the Hub will not be the same.

Backup Campaign

Getting the whole group together for a game night can be tricky. As we grow older, obligations and kids accumulate. I’m amazingly fortunate that my players are still committed to weekly gaming. Well, almost. We’ve agreed that we’ll still play if one out of our five players is missing, otherwise we’d never get anything done. And if four can’t make it, it’s an easy call to cancel the event. But what if only two or three are out? Hanging out or board games are decent options, but we’re united by our shared love for roleplaying games. Hence, a backup campaign.

The backup campaign has to have minimal character importance – we never know who will be present next time. Likewise, as a month or more can pass between these backup games, there can’t be any significant plot. These requirements lend themselves to a dungeoncrawling game, where ideally each floor of a dungeon is completed in a session. It also seemed like a good place to experiment with the OSR style of play.

On the night this idea came up, we set up a town to act as a hub, surrounded it by thematic locales players wanted to explore that would easily house dungeons and wilderness adventures, and placed a giant weird hole in a ground next to it to act as an excuse for any random dungeon I might find.

Finally, I had Shadow of the Demon Lord burning a hole in my electronic shelf, and all the pieces fell in place. We still had two characters who survived our first foray into the system, and it’s easy enough to roll up a new one. We wanted to see more of the system, so levelling up is very quick – each session survived (in which significant progress was accomplished) grants a level. At the same time, high lethality is part and parcel of OSR, so I’m not terribly worried all PCs will reach max level and get bored.

Darkest Dungeon served as an inspiration for the whole model. I briefly considered further emulating it with some sort of city upgrades, but that just seemed like too much work. Instead, I’m using an ad hoc achievement/unlock system. Everything in the core book is fair game for players to choose. Beating dungeons or getting treasure grants them access to specific extra material, of which SotDL has plenty. For instance, our party is about to befriend (or try to beat) the not-quite-lich at the end of the Tomb of the Serpent Kings. Either will open up the Death magic tradition from Demon Lord’s Companion for them.

This has worked really well for us. While this playstyle is not our usual cup of tea, its problem-oriented nature offers a nice break from our usual moral dilemmas and drama. There’s a certain sense of freedom I experience as a GM – all I gotta do is portray the current obstacle, without worrying how it ties into the established plot lines or how it’ll affect them. Maybe the dungeon gets the PCs, maybe it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter. There are more PCs if it does, and more dungeons if it doesn’t.

More than anything, having a backup campaign has removed the stress and frustration that comes with scheduling issues. Full group or not, we’re playing something fun, not scrambling to find a replacement activity.

Progression Done Right – Gumballs & Dungeons

Having spent the better part of the last month railing against exploitative progression systems in games, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about a game that does progression well. A mobile collectathon. Please don’t run. A mobile collectathon with energy, timers, and premium currency. No, seriously, hear me out.

Gumballs & Dungeons kept being recommmended in my Play Store, and the cutesy name and graphic style kept scaring me off. Too Candy Crush. Having finally tried it a few months ago, I’m glad I did, as I still play it daily. First and foremost, G&D is a competent roguelite dungeoncrawler. Each maze (as the game calls them) level is a 6×5 grid hiding monsters, loot, and the way down. As you progress further, monsters get tougher and bosses appear. There’s equipment, spell scrolls, and xp, which is spent on a branching skill tree. It’s all comfortably familiar.

For each run, you pick a character, one of the titular gumballs. Each gumball has a unique talent, and belongs to one of three types which determine its starting stats and the skill tree it uses: melee, magic, or venture. As you progress through the, essentially, extended tutorial stages of the game, you unlock the ability to “soul-link” a second and then a third gumball, letting you use their talents and skill trees. Except you can only soul-link with gumballs of the same faction, of which there are four. With almost 200 gumballs to choose from, and new ones added frequently, there’s plenty of combinations to try.

Mazes have not just their own monsters and bosses, but sets of achievements and unique mechanics as well. There’s a gumball associated with each maze that you get for beating its “story mode” – several short runs you do at the start; and a second hidden gumball you have to somehow earn inside the maze.

That’s the basics. G&D passes the first test that so many mobile games fail – it is actually a game. Picking a combination of gumballs you haven’t tried yet and seeing how far you can go or what achivements you can get is fun. What about the second test, how exploitative is its progression system?

It’ll take years to Get All The Things – and that’s the one and only objective in this game. And yes, it’s possible to instead pay a silly amount of money to, essentially, avoid playing the game, the paradox of microtransactions is fully applicable. The game, however, claims you don’t have to spend money to enjoy it, and it’s mostly true. The “buy-in”, which unocks what I’d consider the intended experience, is 10 USD. That’s the somewhat standardised value of a package awarding premium currency (gems) every day for a month. Even here, G&D has a twist. You can save up and pay gems to upgrade the item producing gems twice, slightly increasing the gems it gives, and prolonging its lifespan for up to a year. Quirky? That’s G&D in a nutshell. And $10 for a year of gaming is not too bad. This “buy-in” approximately doubles the amount of gems you get daily, and there’s plenty of things to spend gems on.

 

Another very important factor: whatever you pay for, you won’t have wasted your precious gems. All upgrades are permanent. Even the random gumball fragments you get from pots are not worthless. Unlike in many similar games, upgrading gumballs is not destructive – you don’t have to sacrifice a bunch of lower-tier gumballs to advance the chosen gumball to a higher tier, or any such nonsense. Neither are your rewards ever held hostage by limited inventory space or some other threat of missing out if you don’t pay up. Everything you get is yours to keep, and there’s a finite, quite reachable point where a given gumball is maxed out. And once it’s maxed out, there’s a way to prevent its fragments from appearing in pots again.

The game provides an actual reason to want to collect and max out every gumball that goes beyond the exploitative Gotta Catch Them All. It’s an approach I haven’t seen before: each gumball has not just a unique combat talent, but a passive buff as well. These differ significantly: some increase the stats of some or all other gumballs, others buff spells and items, or improve the functionality of the game itself.

Take alliance missions, for instance (of course there are alliances). They refresh every 12 hours, with each mission taking 5 minutes to complete – a simple timer. These grant varying amounts of alliance coins (of course there’s a separate currency), from 120 to 30. Meaning it’s good to do the few best-paying missions, and the rest are a less significant bonus. Still, sounds a bit tedious, doesn’t it? However! One of the first things you should spend these alliance coins on are fragments for the Nelson gumball, whose passive decreases the mission timer. When fully maxed out, and that does take a while, missions are completed instantaneously with a press of a button. Yes, the game created an obstacle and then made me work to gradually remove it. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel good to press that button. That’s progression systems for you.

Sky combat, yet another subsystem (are you noticing a pattern yet?), provides another reason to collect the gumballs: you put a bunch of them on an airship, which gains stats depending on their star level, and bonuses for combinations of different gumballs present. There’re, naturally, a bunch of different airships you can gather fragments for, which improve their passive bonuses and guns that can be mounted on any airship. Sky exploration is its own minigame, with elements of Choose Your Own Adventure, that mostly grants its own set of resources which are used to progress further in it. Which isn’t that different from the core game, really. Unfortunately, sky exploration is the weakest part of the game, with very little interesting decisions you get to make, and I would love to see an overhaul. Still, you do get severall gumballs from it, and in a few mazes you can even call your airship to assist you.

As a result, you always feel like you’re progressing, even if it slows down to a crawl after a while. You’re never waiting for a lucky drop that may come tomorrow or next year – slow and steady accumulation of gumball fragments and other resources is inevitable. You will get every thing, if you’re patient enough. And meanwhile, with each gumball you acquire the rest grow a bit stronger. Next time you’ll get further in sky exploration, delve deeper in a maze.

Gradually, the game becomes more of a management sim than a dungeoncrawler. You “raid” mazes to spend the energy, and even automatically complete the daily quests in the maxed out mazes you raid. Check the shops when they refresh, explore the sky when the sky energy is full, do the alliance missions. It’s busywork, but it’s busywork that’s earned its right to exist. The game isn’t a new hotness for me anymore, and I’m glad I have a way to progress in it without engaging with the main, time-consuming component that frequently. And I’m equally glad the game gives me reasons to actually play by having regular mini-maze events and occasionally releasing new mazes.

G&D is full of gradually unveiling subsystems, some seemingly there just so that you’d have more things to master. It is full of not-at-all subtle cultural references – Zerg Queen gumball comes to mind. Its interface is a mess, and the game could use a bunch of quality-of-life polish. It is brimming with charm and easter eggs. Most importantly, Gumballs & Dungeons is an example of a progression system done right: it takes many of the established addictive progression techinques of free-to-play mobile quasi-games, but uses an actual game as a foundation. The progression system is used to enhance and prolong the experience of playing the game, not to hide its absence.

Progression of progression, level 2

Having laid the groundwork in the previous post, we can finally do some analysis. 

Value?

Remember the formula: Value = Challenge * Reward. We’ve covered Challenge and Reward, now it’s Value’s turn. Value is in the eye of the beholder – it depends entirely on the individual how challenging slaying the beholder was, or how much said individual wanted the beholder’s eyes. And as Value is subjective, game designers employ every trick they can think of to convince the players they’re getting the best possible Value by playing the game. This can mean making the game a great experience – no one sets out to make a bad game, after all; but it also means stuffing games full of progression systems.

They’d be crazy not to do so. Progression systems work, creating perception of Value out of thin air. And there’s nothing wrong with progression in principle, it’s just another tool of game design. But you may have noticed some of the Challenges and Rewards discussed in the first part were not as meaningful as others. While still challenging or rewarding in their own way, they lack substance. They have no connection to the game itself, no purpose for being there other than to be there. To use a dietary analogy, they’ve replaced nutritional content with spoonfuls of sugar. When both Rewards and Challenges in a game are nothing but sugar, the Value they create is addictively tasty, but not actually nuorishing. It’s a perversion of the very concept, leading to a cognitive dissonance. Our monkey brains tell us an achivement for killing a thousand orcs is an incredibly important thing. They also tell us it’s a meaningless tick mark you earn for hours of unenjoyable grinding.

Some have compared such games to a Skinner box: pull a lever, get a reward (xp, loot, unlocks, whatever), ad infinitum. While the comparison is apt, the games are actually much more insidious. It’s not just a piece of carrot that you’re getting, to be enjoyed today and forgotten tomorrow. You’re getting carrot #458/9999. You already have all the previous carrots you got. One day, if you pull the lever long enough, you’ll own them all. And even the trash-tier carrots you get have their use, you’ll disenchant them and get yourself the god-tier UberCarrot5000. You’re not just enjoying this one transient piece of reward. You’re progressing towards the End Game.

Having put hundreds of hours into a game, having earned all this progress, we’re held hostage by the sunk cost fallacy, another essential component of progression systems which can overpower the cognitive dissonance. Yes, the game has long since stopped being enjoyable, and yes, the “progress” is a load of rubbish. But if you stop now, you’re going to lose all this Valuable rubbbish. And you’re a smart person, you didn’t waste all this time. You invested it. Fun? What’s that?

Kinds of Fun

Ok, that wasn’t entirely fair, there are different ways to have fun, and even the most hollow games offer something to their players. Mark LeBlanc had identified 8 kinds of fun in his paper on the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics approach to game design. The list is not meant to be exhaustive:

  1. Sensation – game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy – game as make-believe
  3. Narrative – game as unfolding story
  4. Challenge – game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship – game as social framework
  6. Discovery – game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression – game as soap box
  8. Submission – game as mindless pastime

Any game features a mixture of several kinds of fun. Of these, Submission is an obvious fit for some of what we’ve been discussing: zone out, put up a Youtube video on the second monitor, and go kill some orcs. I would like, however, to expand this list with two more kinds of fun that are leveraged by progression systems. First one is Completion – game as a check list. Catch them all, collect all the moons, get all the achievements. For this kind of fun to be present, there needs to be a finite list of things to get. The second is Anticipation – game as a carrot on a stick. It’s a strange, deferred kind of fun. You will be amazing – one day. That day the game will end. Keep moving forward, keep levelling up, keep finding better loot. Your gun has reached its max level? Don’t actually use it, time to level another one. Or “prestige” it, and do it all over again.

Gamification of Gaming

Remember when gamification was going to change our mundane lives? Transforming everything from work to working out, from chores to learning by turning everything into a game. Reward the desired behavior with points, badges, levels; encourage competition and one-upmanship, where appropriate; watch people fall over themselves to do the things they hated. Basically, take the lessons learned from decades of game design and apply the same motivations to real world. The idea is no doubt still out there, though it seems to have lost some steam. Instead it doubled back, and, like a scorpion stinging itself, went back into the gaming industry.

Take the principles which make people like the activity they enjoy even more. Refine them on activities people hate. Reapply them to activites people enjoy. A good game is hard to make, gamification will make anything enjoyable. And if gamification requires compromising the game itself, that’s a sacrifice too many game developers are willing to make.

From energy and timers of mobile and facebook games, to daily quests of MMOs and now AAA titles, they all do the same thing. XP bars, levels, unlocks. Keep playing. Don’t miss out. Keep investing your time. Submit. You’re being rewarded. Login streak. Submit. Level up. Achivement unlocked. Submit. Fun is coming. Submit. Submit.

Ahem. Where were we?

Monetization of Gaming

Games may be art, but game publishing is a business. Artists pull the game in whatever direction their art takes them, while business tries to maximize profits. Every game exists somewhere between the two, a compromise resulting in a product players get to enjoy. Technical capabilites have shifted significantly over the years, and games have followed suit, drawn by business’ incentives.

It starts with arcade games. They are tough, but don’t rely on randomness to determine success – it’s possible to master them through trial and error (and lots of coins). There is no permanent progression as it is not technically possible. There is only progression of skill. Whether endless games you play for a high score, or more structured games you play to beat, they don’t sell you the game itself, but attempts at winning it.

Then computers and consoles come to homes without a coin teleportation technology. There is no longer an incentive to make games fiendishly difficult as there is no way for players to pay for extra attempts. The game itself becomes the product. Once the player bought it, they can do whatever they want with it – cheat codes are a popular “feature”.

Eventually, Internet and credit cards offer a way to pay the game publisher after a game is already bought. The ramifications would take a while to be fully felt. MUDs and later MMOs appear. They charge a subscription fee to cover the ongoing cost of running servers. And once you start charging a subscription fee, you want players to keep paying it. Drawn out progression systems become the norm. Time played is the product.

Meanwhile in the real world of tabletop games, Magic: the Gathering takes over, spawning numerous less successful immitators. These Collectibe Card Games sell randomized booster packs. Their contents is unknown. It’s probably rubbish. But it could be amazing. The thrill of opening a pack is as much a product as the cards themselves. Crucially, the cards are a physical object, capable of being exchanged or sold on the secondary market.

But back to computer games. A subscription forces the player to ask themselves each month: is it worth it? For that matter, the initial price of the game poses the same question. Free-to-play Facebook and mobile games appear. They offer even more drawn-out progression systems, as well as limit the ability to actually play the game – actions take energy to accomplish, which replenishes every so often, or skip this abstraction entirely and count down real time in hours or days. These are extraneous, artificial challenges hiding the shallow gameplay.

While “hardcore” gamers quickly see through it and are turned off, these games aren’t meant for them. They aren’t games you play, per se, and they purposefully target those who would not normally call themselves gamers. And how do these free timewaster non-games make money? Why, they sell you the ability to avoid playing them. Their gameplay consists of gradual progression. Microtransactions let you skip it. The Challenge is time… or money. That’s the paradox of microtransactions: not playing the game is the product.

This is the most evil, ingenious twist on the ingenious concept that is progression. It was as inevitable as it was catastrophic. And it is sold as consumer choice! You can play the game for 4528 hours to unlock everything, or you can pay $2100. Choice is good, right? The proposition is as insulting as it is effective.

And then there are lootboxes. Remember the CCGs? They’ve grown up. Everything is a collectible card game now, everything comes in packs. Collectible and random, cards are a perfect metaphor for any and all progression elements. Lootboxes, yet another layer of the progression progression. Specifically, Wilson Lootboxes. By randomizing progression itself, games further inflate the Value they offer. It’s yet another trick our monkey brains fall for: the chance to get the best possible Reward out of a lootbox feels almost as important as actually getting it. We rarely know the actual probabilities of getting specific rewards, and are bad at handling probabilities anyway. You’re always just one lucky drop away. And once you do get it, you won’t have to grind the damned lootboxes anymore. The product is the thrill of not playing the game.

Money are Weird

Once money are a part of the in-game challenges, everything gets profoundly weird. So far, we’ve dealt with perceived Value. Money only has a perceived value as well, but its value has a lot more reference points. We know how much money are worth to us much better than we know how much a shiny weapon is worth to us. Or do we? If a particular reward takes 10 hours of gameplay to earn, a player can evaluate how much they actually want it. But offer the same reward for a few dollars as well, and they suddenly have to consider if it’s worth a cup of coffee. Except that’s not quite how the comparison ends up working out.

Because money are not a part of the game, they introduce a different dimension to the Value chart rather than replacing the Challenge axis. Which means that by earning the reward through gameplay, we feel its Value is that much greater – we “saved” the money we could have spent, and we got the reward to enjoy, too! And by buying the reward with money, we feel we don’t just get the item itself, we also saved the hours of gameplay. Whatever we choose, the Value we get is increased. All by placing a price tag on it.

Progression of Progression, level 3?

So there you have it: a line stretching all the way from the very first D&D to the prevalence of lootboxes in modern gaming, the evolution of progression systems from a simple desire to keep playing the same characters to the monstrous, exploitative, omnipresent scheme we have nowadays. What next? Progressions systems are not going away because human nature (read: monkey brains) isn’t going to change. The only thing we can do is be more mindful of what we play. Pause and think: what is the Value of the game you’re playing made of? Is there something beneath the mind tricks and the sugar? Are you actually having fun?