The Facility

The Facility is a one-shot roleplaying game written by yours truly. You can get it, PWYW, from DriveThruRPG and itch.io. Yes, that means you can get it for free, I won’t judge. It is a body horror reverse dungeon crawl metroidvania. If that word salad of a classification didn’t scare you away but didn’t quite convince you either, read on.

The core mechanic of The Facility is unique, at least as far as I’m aware. Trouble is, the gradual unveiling of this mechanic is a part of the experience for players, so I don’t want to spoil it. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a GM and aren’t afraid of spoilers, but if not, you’ve been warned.

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Heretic

Another extra advance for Spire. This one’s doesn’t really introduce a new facet to the world of Spire, but offers a different way of interacting with its many deities.

You don’t always see eye to eye with your deity. You are still their faithful servant, but there’s some dogma, some divine dictate, that doesn’t sit right with you. Every time you expressed your concern, you were rebuked and told not to question the will of god. Well, your god is wrong, and you will make them see it.

REQUIREMENT: Have an ideological falling out with your deity.

REFRESH: Convince a member of the faith you are right.

Unlike other religious spellcasters, you don’t take stress when using divine magic. Instead, you gain a bond with your deity and stress is assigned to this bond. At the deity’s whim, abilities used in its direct service do not inflict stress. To clear this stress, you perform your duties as any orthodox priest would. Like other bonds, the GM rolls for fallout at the end of each session.

MINOR – HECKLED [Divine]. At an inopportune moment during the next session you run into hecklers in the streets. You are likely to be cursed out and spat on, though they aren’t brave enough for a physical altercation. Increase the difficulty of any check by 1 while being heckled.

MODERATE – TRIAL [Divine]. Your deity puts forth a trial for you to prove your devotion. The exact nature of the trial depends entirely on the deity, though it should take at least a couple of scenes and/or a non-trivial sacrifice to resolve. While the trial is incomplete, you deity will not help you – Divine abilities tied to this god simply don’t work for you.

SEVERE – APOSTATE [Divine]. A prominent religious figure brands you an apostate. Friends within the faith turn away from you, and enemies call for your head. Suffering this fallout more than once is likely to lead to an all-out holy war against you.

ADVANCES

LOW

HERESY LOVES COMPANY. Others reach out to you in secret to express their agreement. +1 Shadow. Gain two individual-level bonds with members of the faith who share your doubts. Unlike you, they aren’t willing to brave the ire of the church by revealing their heresy. Betraying their confidence will inflict d8 stress on the bond.

THEOLOGICAL DEBATE. Even the high priests fear your wit. Gain the Compel skill. When you try to convince the audience your opponent is wrong, do so with mastery. Bear in mind that publicly humiliating a priest is bound to have unpleasant consequences.

MODERATE

A MATTER OF FAITH. [Divine] Faith is a two-way street. Once per session, promise to your deity what you’re about to do is ultimately to serve them. For the duration of the scene, your divine abilities work as normal, with you taking stress instead of your divine bond. Furthermore, the size of the stress die decreases by 1 for this scene.

HERETICAL CHURCH. Your numbers grow. You must have HERESY LOVES COMPANY to take this advance. +1 Reputation. You found a separate branch of the church. Gain street-level Bond with your congregation, made up equally of converts and newly devout. You are barely tolerated by the orthodox church.

HIGH

SCHISM. [Divine] While you haven’t entirely changed your god’s views, they at least acknowledge you have a point. You must have HERETICAL CHURCH to take this advance. You are back in the good graces of your deity, meaning your divine abilities work as before. Orthodox religion begrudgingly agrees you are not a heretic but a reformator. People unaffiliated with you pick up the changed practices all over the world. Gain a district-level Bond with the faithful.

Usherer of the World Yet to Come

Extra advances for Spire. They’re very high-concept, utterly bonkers, and I’m unreasonably pleased with them. Even if you don’t intend to play Spire, and you should, it should be easy to follow this.

The World Yet to Come is neither a god nor a demon. It doesn’t have cultists or worshippers. It has usherers. It is an impossibility, and it needs you to make it possible. It speaks to you in death and offers rebirth. The conversation you remember is an attempt to understand that which cannot yet be understood.

It looked angelic, made of feathers and glow, but only when you faced it and only when it was still. When you tilted your head even slightly, or when it shifted, you saw behind the exterior. You saw the countless jutting blades made of merciless hard light that formed the beautiful visage. You stood immobile and prayed it do the same.

What is it? You remember it saying some called it Phoenix. It certainly likes avian metaphors. It is the World Yet to Come, and you can no more comprehend it than a chick within an egg can comprehend the skies.

What does it want? You remember it saying it will be born when the World That Is dies. It wants you to be the beak that pierces the shell and ushers in the new existence. You remember it asking if it is a perfect world you live in. You know your answer.

What does it offer? Birth.

What will it cost? Death.

You don’t remember if you agreed to be the usherer of the World Yet to Come, but you do remember dying. Yet you are here, in this imperfect world. Time to break its shell.

REQUIREMENT: Die. Dream of Phoenix. Be reborn.

REFRESH: Kill someone or destroy something with eschaton (see below), excising them from the World Yet to Come.

Usherer advances and abilities give you thin branching scars, like cracks in a shell, through which the light of the World yet to Come occasionally shines. Keep track of how many scars you have. Once at any time during a session, and whenever you use IT IS NOT YET TIME or IMMANENTIZE THE ESCHATON, the GM rolls a d10. If the result is less than the number of scars you have, you suffer a special fallout. Its severity depends on the number of scars you have. This fallout doesn’t clear any of your stress or remove any scars.

MINOR – LIGHT: [Scar] Your scars light up, shining even through clothing. For the remainder of the scene it is all but impossible for you to not draw everyone’s attention.

MODERATE – BLAZE: [Scar] The light from your scars turns sharp, shredding your clothes, then hot, immolating what’s left of them. For the remainder of the scene you blaze with the fury of a future world eager to be born. You are unharmed by this flame, which is not at all true for anyone next to you.

SEVERE – GLIMPSE: [Scar] You catch a glimpse of the World Yet to Come, and someone you’re looking at right now isn’t in it. You have to do everything in your power to excise them. If you fail for any reason, e.g. they die due to other causes, you immediately suffer 1d8 Mind stress.

ADVANCES

LOW

IT IS NOT YET TIME. [Divine] Your wounds close. Your body opens. Once per scene, clear d6 Blood stress. A scar forms over the wounds you had, replacing ruined flesh with light.

MEDIUM

IMMANENTIZE THE ESCHATON. [Divine] The future murders the past by your hand. Gather its light. Hold the blade. Usher in the new world. The cracks on your body grow wider – gain another scar. With a sweep of your hand, you can gather the light shining through these cracks into a blade called eschaton. The more scars you have, the harder the light, the sharper eschaton is:

1 scar: 1d3 damage, bloodbound

2 scars: 1d3 damage, bloodbound, piercing

3 scars: 1d6 damage, bloodbound, piercing

4 scars: 1d6 damage, bloodbound, piercing, brutal

5 scars: 1d6 damage, bloodbound, devastating, brutal

6+ scars: 1d8 damage, bloodbound, devastating, brutal

Eschaton disappears as soon as you let go of it. Take note of everyone and everything you excise using it.

HIGH

IT IS TIME. [Divine] You won’t be able to contain it much longer. The World Yet to Come will be born through you. The light shines brighter. Another scar forms. At any moment, even between taking stress and rolling for fallout, you can choose to shatter in a blinding flash of light. You die. Roll a d10. If the result is greater than or equal to the number of scars you have, the World Yet to Come is yet to come. Otherwise, you are reborn, scar-free and stress-free, in the same spot in the new World That Is.

The World That Is has never had anyone or anything excised with eschaton. The whole group should work together to figure out what that means.

The World That Is is not The World Yet to Come. It is an incremental step, an egg within an egg. Can you break through the infinite cycle of death and rebirth? Will piercing the Heart of Spire with eschaton release the Phoenix from its egg? Will it turn Spire itself into an eschaton, aimed to pierce the sky shell of the world?

Spire – the game must be played

Spire, or more fully Spire: The City Must Fall is an RPG by Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor of Rowan, Rook and Decard (don’t ask which one is which). In it, players are dark elves living in the namesake megapolis, their former capital taken over by high elves, or aelfir. The game is about the struggle to free the drow from the yoke of oppression, fomenting a revolution the PCs likely won’t live to see. It is my favorite RPG in a long time.

Mechanically, Spire is a curious mixture of by now traditional narrative game elements such as failing forward and success at a cost with more game-y bits like plentiful player options and swingy lethality of conflict. There’s been many attempts at marrying story games to D&D. Dungeon World faithfully recreated D&D in the Apocalypse World Engine. 13th Age took concentrated D&D and welded improv bits on the side, hoping they take root. Spire takes a different approach. It is a story game that shanked D&D in a dark alley, made a mask out of its face, then showed up to the game night pretending nothing has happened.

The core mechanics are somewhat similar to Blades in the Dark, which I reviewed recently. There’s a dice pool, made up of d10s in this case, only the highest die matters, and the results are broken into the familiar range of critical success (10), success (8-9), success at a cost (6-7), failure (2-5) and critical failure (1). You get a die in the dice pool just for showing up, plus one if you have the relevant skill, another if you have the relevant domain, and one more if you have mastery. Difficulty ranges from 0 for most tasks to 2 for the hardest, and subtracts dice from the dice pool.

Skills are what you can do, while domains are where or to whom you can do it. Domains include Academia, Occult, Crime, etc.. Mastery covers specific narrow expertise, like a knack gained by obtaining the same skill or domain twice, but also represents magical aid granted by many spells. There are a total of 9 skills and 9 domains, and a starting character gains 2 of each, plus up to 4 total of either, depending on the choices made. This leads to well defined areas of expertise as there’s no gradation of skill or domain level – you either have it or you don’t.

Spire handles failure similarly to Fate, in that it doesn’t dictate immediate consequences for every roll. Failing forward is mentioned as a good GMing practice, but not required by the rules. Instead, failure or the cost part of a success at a cost results in the character taking stress. There are a whopping five stress tracks: Blood, Mind, Silver, Reputation, and Shadow. However, compared to Spire, Fate is downright cosy when consequences do hit. In Fate, players have control over taking consequences, and can choose to concede a conflict any time before dice are rolled. In Spire, there are no easy outs and the best drow can do is hope.

Whenever a character takes stress, the GM rolls a d10 and compares the result to the sum of all stress that character now has. If the roll is lower, the character suffers fallout – accumulated abstract stress coalesces into a tangible consequence. The total amount of stress determines the severity of fallout, minor (2-4), moderate (5-8) or severe (9+), while the type of stress the character has most of determines the type of fallout – there’s a sample list of fallouts of each type and severity. This isn’t a hard rule, as the GM is free to pick a different type of fallout if it fits better, and Blood Magic mini supplement includes a list of Occult fallouts, opening the doors for even more and weirder outcomes.

Minor fallout typically goes away after a scene, moderate fallout requires some effort to get rid of, while severe fallout permanently warps or ruins the character, if not kills them outright. At least suffering fallout clears some stress: 3 for minor, 5 for moderate and 7 for severe. This leads to a peculiar situation where players want to suffer minor fallout as much as possible – it’s not too bad, and certainly beats walking around with massive stress, just waiting for an anvil to drop. Other methods of clearing stress include actually spending time engaging in an activity that would help, like aiding your neighbors to remove Reputation stress, taking time off to clear all stress while the plot advances without you, and fulfilling the refresh condition of your class: e.g. engage in reckless excess if you’re a Knight. The grander the refresh, the greater the size of the die you’ll roll to clear stress. I don’t think my players have ever rolled higher than 1, no matter what die I give them.

As you can see, stress is deadly. Thankfully, many abilities give characters free stress slots in specific tracks that can be filled as normal but don’t count when rolling for fallout. Armor works similarly, offering free Blood slots which clear at the end of each scene. Keeping track of it all can get a bit fiddly, especially as the rules suggest the GM do it by themselves, only giving players a general impression of how much trouble they’re in. There’s a webpage that can handle this, but it lacks some important features like clearing armor slots or bypassing them due to magic or weapon property. In the end, I’ve opted for the more familiar mode where players keep track of their own stress, but that’s a matter of preference.

Stress is dealt randomly, from 1 for the most trivial things to 1d8 for something like being hit with a greatsword, so an unlucky character can suffer severe fallout after just one bad roll. This would appear to be a prime example of goblin dice – high variance rolls well suited for determining the fate of goblins, but misapplied to determine the fate of heroes as well. And unlike the similarly deadly OSR games, there’s no emphasis on player skill enabling characters to avoid ever rolling the dice in the first place. And yet it works in Spire, because while the characters are certainly not inconsequential goblins, they are not fated heroes either. They are drow: beautiful, competent, brave… expendable. Their lives are volatile and unstable, much like the city they inhabit. Always one roll away from turmoil.

“This is not a kind world,” the book says in the section titles Things To Know, right after introducing the reader to the setting, and I’d recommend reading that entire page out loud at the start of the very first game. “This is going to kill you.” But also “You are going to hurt people,” and there’s a way to avoid taking stress after all – have someone else do it for you. Instead of emphasizing player skill, the system emphasizes character choice. They could walk away, trade the fight for freedom for a safer life. Instead, they choose to stand up for their people – or let them take the fall. Illustrating this, the Firebrand, a quintessential revolutionary class, can gain an ability called Untouchable which allows them to transfer Blood fallout to a non-enemy NPC present in the scene. “Whether they willingly sacrificed themselves or you managed to get behind them in time is up to you.”

That ability is not the exception – character classes positively drip with flavor. Carrion-Priests with their sacred hyenas; Azurites, priests of the god of commerce who can buy literally anything; Knights, whose quests typically involve mystic pubs; the absolutely terrifying Midwives… If I were to list all the abilities I love, I’d have to retype half the book. Even abilities that mainly give free stress slots help paint a picture, like The Secret of Lucky Breaks the Bound can take, which gives them one of each of Mind and Reputation free slots, but also means they always have a little bit of liquor in their bottle, three cigaretes in their pocket, and a dry match. Oh, yeah. Bound are vigilantes with small gods in their gear. Think Batman who chats to batarangs.

By limiting the game to the eponymous city, Spire can make every class unique. Unlike D&D that has to be as generic a heroic fantasy as possible, unlike Apocalypse World that has a vision of its genre but leaves the world undefined, Spire is unapologetically itself. Turns out, confidence is appealing. The Knight is not an archetypical knight. They are a member of an ancient Order dedicated to protecting the Docks, long since devolved into drunken thuggery, the only ones still allowed to bear a greatsword in the city. The Vermissian Sage is not an archetypical sage. They’re a student of a non-Eucledian train system running under the skin of Spire, and the best ones learn to find their way into the Glass Library in its depths where ambient information condenses into books. There I go retelling the book again.

And classes aren’t even my favorite part. No, if I had to pick, it would be the way the game handles characters stepping outside the bounds of their classes. Spire delivers on the promise of prestige classes made all the way back in D&D 3e – reflecting the character growth and the roles they take up in the world. Join an organization, a religion, a cult, a ghoulish monster living under the streets, and you get access to the extra advances they offer, simple as that. You still have to earn these advances, so there’s very little reason not to be generous with these memberships. Characters gain the associated refresh condition as well, but they have to actually fulfill it to benefit, at which point they’re doing what they’re meant to – driving the game forward. As there’s no mechanical cost for characters to gain access to these extra advances, they are free to go wherever their story takes them.

Reading endless prestige classes in D&D always felt like looking at toys in a shop: they certainly seem cool, but chances of actually playing with most of them are almost nil. And so they sat there, gathering dust behind the thick glass of mechanics. Extra advances in Spire, on the other hand, are handed out like a razor-filled bowl of candy on a Halloween night. Put your hand in, see what happens.

As a side note, I already wrote one extra advance for my game, and have plans for a few more. Stay tuned.

All this talk of advances, but how do characters actually advance? By changing Spire. The greater the change, the greater the advance – they are ranked as low, medium and high. Reflecting the central theme of revolution and its uncertainties, it doesn’t have to be a change for the better. What does it mean to change the city? How do you cause change under an oppresive regime? That’s something the group has to decide by themselves. “Subvert, don’t destroy,” another Thing To Know, warns about futility of hasty violence. Killing a drug dealer poisioning their own kind may feel good, but there’ll be a different one on the same corner tomorrow. “There’s always another level.” Change too much, stand too tall, and the aelfir will cut you down.

The rules for advancement, elegant and thematic as they are, may be too smart for their own good. The inherent contradiction of wanting easy victories while striving for lasting change may reflect hard choices revolutionaries face, but is not great for players who have to choose between fun abilities now and success later. And sometimes they simply go for sessions engaged in personal conflicts or investigating mysteries, not changing the city. Or fight to prevent some horrorific plot, preserving the status quo. With so many awesome abilities to gain, it feels like a let down to not actually gain them. Maybe we’re not thinking like revolutionaries yet. Thankfully, it’s trivial to add other advancement criteria that fit your game, or simply give out a low advance every now and then.

What of Spire itself? We’re confined to the city, so interesting classes and functional mechanics won’t save the game if the city is not worth saving. At the start, I thought this was going to be a one campaign game. We’d play through one of the adventures on offer (more on them in a bit), see most of what there’s to see in Spire, die for the revolution and that’ll be that. Then I discovered more than half of the book is dedicated to the setting. There’s a lot more to see in Spire than a few sessions would allow. And it is worth seeing!

Spire mixes horror with whimsy, violence with joy, oppression with freedom. It is built on the foundation of familiar D&D cliches, with drow, high elves, demons, gnolls, and all things fantasy, so you won’t feel lost. Yet it is undeniably its own thing: aelfir always wear masks, drow hatch from cocoons, gnolls are renowned demonologists, and demons kill everything around them in the brief moment of existence within our world. There’s always a twist, an unexpected direction, a cool combination. A rotten unreal Heart buried deep below pulses throughout Spire, suffusing it with weirdness and terror. So of course drow used its energies to run trains. It didn’t go well.

The setting description is organized by the domain. As Spire resembles a giant skyscraper, it is split into layers. Each layer has its own unique character and mostly belongs to a single domain. As characters gain an extra die while within a domain they’re proficient with, location matters a whole lot more than in most other games. We place the absolutely gorgeous maps by Tim Wilkinson Lewis in the middle of the table, and the place gains substance, feels almost real. As a side note, together with the map of Sunless Sea, the walls of my room are now covered with imagined places I’ve visited. I’m more than okay with that.

It may seem counterintuitive to base a game focused on improvisation in a detailed setting. It’s certainly opposite to the approach other improv games I’ve played take. But Spire manages to be detailed without being confining. The book, full of information as it is, is just a glimpse into the vast megapolis. It contains a multitude of ideas to be thrown at players while leaving even more space in the margins to add our own.

The written adventures the game calls campaign frames function in a similar manner, or at least Eidolon Sky, which we’re about to wrap up, does. There’s the outline of the underlying plot, the plot threads PC can stumble upon and what they’ll find out if they pull on them, and a list of NPCs and situations that can come up. What you do with this box of toys is up to you. I’ve found it a great resource for running an improv campaign, stumbling in and out of the plot, getting distracted by everything else in Spire.

Finally, presentation and art style is not something I normally cover in a game. I appreciate it, just don’t have much to say about it. And while that remains true, I feel the need to mention the stunning full-page illustrations by Adrian Stone. It is a great looking game.

Spire offers an impossible cause, and dares you to hope. It invites its players to become revolutionaries, but doesn’t dictate what that means. Will your refresh the tree of liberty with blood of patriots and tyrants, or lead a senseless and merciless revolt? One thing’s certain: Spire will be changed. The city must fall.

Unified Theory of Blades in the Dark

I’ve complained at length about the Blades in the Dark rules almost making sense in its review. To summarize, subtly different logic governs the two core mechanics of the game, action and fortune rolls, with plentiful exceptions to how they work in specific cases, making it impossible to comprehend the rules instead of memorizing them. I’ve also threatened to rewrite the rules to fix these issues as I see them. Well, here are the reworked, unified rules in all their deranged glory.

Plenty of nuance has been discarded by design, some things have been made explicit that previously hid under the cover, and pretty significant changes have been made here and there. If these rules seem unwieldy, that’s because they attempt to encompass most of the edge cases the original rules present. That said, it is my hope you’ll read these rules and won’t even notice half the places where they differ from the original – that was the point. As with other system hacks I wrote, the text assumes the reader knows the original system, and only describes the changes.

Finally, I should say this is in no way an attempt to make the original rules better, I mean no disrespect towards their designer, and if they work for you – fantastic. Rather, it is an attempt to make the rules better for me, and, hopefully, for some of you.

Overview

It all comes down to tiers. Effect levels and dice, potency and quality, roll results and progress clocks, it’s all tiers in the end. Embrace this fact and everything else will follow.

The main thing that matters when attempting to do anything is the difference in tiers between your effort and the difficulty. There’s some bargaining that happens before the roll, more so in this version of the rules, and the roll itself can nudge the result one way or another. If the roll is successful and effort matches difficulty, you get standard effect level, i.e. do the thing you set out to do. If your effort was of a lower tier, you get limited effect level, and it may be time to draw a progress clock.

Action roll

Whenever you’re about to do something, determine the difficulty. Whether it is a person or an object you’re trying to overcome, they have a tier. To establish it, use Magnitude as your guide; when running a score, the target’s tier defines most of opposition you’ll face. Increase it for every factor that works against the characters, like scale and quantity of opposition. If a factor dominates the situation, like an overwhelming number of enemies making it impossible to defeat them all, find a more fitting goal, e.g. executing a fighting retreat and determine the difficulty accordingly.

DIFFICULTY = opposition’s tier + circumstance (scale + quantity + …)

Next determine your capability. Start by adding your crew’s tier to the action rating you’ve settled on. Any abilities that give you an extra die or increase effect levels increase capability instead. Likewise, increase it for every factor that works in characters’ favor such as potency and quality. 

CAPABILITY = crew’s tier + action rating + abilities + circumstance (potency + quality + …)

If that number seems low, you have several options for bargaining. Add an extra 1 for teamwork (ally takes 1 stress), and another extra 1 if you push yourself (take 2 stress) OR accept a devil’s bargain. If it makes sense narratively, spend coin on a 1-to-1 basis. You can further modify the capability, also on a 1-to-1 basis, by improving or worsening your position, established as usual by the GM.

BARGAINING = teamwork + push OR devil’s bargain + coin spent +/- position

Finally, pick the effort tier you’re going for. Generally, you’ll want it to match the difficulty. Setting the effort one tier higher or lower than the difficulty gets you greater or lesser effect, respectively, and setting it two or three tiers lower than the difficulty only makes sense when dealing with progress clocks. Subtract the effort from your capability, and the result will tell you how many dice you get to roll.

DICE POOL =  capability + bargaining – effort

If the roll is successful, the result tier is equal to the effort tier, potentially modified by the consequences of the roll, i.e. a critical success resulting in greater effect (+1 result tier) or a mixed success resulting in lesser effect (-1 result tier).

This sure is a lot of addition, but in most circumstances only a few of these factors will actually apply. The default situation of risky position against equal-tier opposition means you get to roll your action rating, as usual.

Bob is attempting to break into the office above the butcher’s shop belonging to Billhooks while the rest of the crew distract them. Billhooks are a tier 2 organization, so that’s what the difficulty is going to be. Bob’s crew are only tier 0, his finesse is 3, so that’s 3 so far. He’s got fine lockpicks, which gets him a total capability of 4, not bad.

He would much rather not get caught hanging upside down outside the window, so he takes the devil’s bargain to further improve his chances – he feels something slip out of his pocket just as he’s about to open the lock, and lets it fall to the ground below rather than let go of the lockpick to catch it. Bob reduces his available loadout by one, but gains 1 capability from bargaining, 5 total. Too bad his allies just flubbed their part of the plan, putting him in a desperate position – there are billhooks on the streets, all it’ll take is for one of them to look up. Sacrificing precision for speed, he elects to go back to a risky position for the roll at the cost of 1 bonus capability he just got.

With a total of 4 capability, Bob sets his effort tier at 2, equal to the difficulty, to make sure he actually opens the damn lock. This leaves him with 2 dice. Not great, but it’ll have to do.

Progress clocks

If everything comes back to tiers, then progress clocks are how tiers are compared. Under the hood, each roll fills a progress clock. Unlike in the original rules where the GM sets the number of segments of a clock, in this variant the rate at which the clock is filled is determined by the relation between result and difficulty tiers.

When making a clock, write its tier (that is, the tier of the opposition or difficulty it summarizes) above it. A result of that tier will fill it entirely. Result one tier lower fills half of it. Two tiers lower – one quarter. Three tiers, you guessed it, 1/8th. Generally speaking, results four or more tiers lower don’t have an impact on the task.

Even if you don’t end up drawing a clock, this gives you an estimate on how far the action progresses after a PC achieves lesser effect.

Fortune roll

Fortune rolls are a zoomed-out version of the action roll, covering more time and less certain factors. They work much the same, except most of bargaining doesn’t apply as there is no position to consider, no teamwork, pushing oneself or accepting devil’s bargain. All PCs can do to influence the outcome once everything’s been calculated is spend coin, but at least they can do so after the roll to “bump up” the result.

The usual caveats of fortune rolls apply. As they are often made by NPCs or entities who don’t have action ratings, any other trait fits. Likewise, circumstances such as having a friendly NPC that can help or a paranoid mark who has seen your faces can adjust the difficulty or capability – a more general version of quality or potency. 

It may be tricky to decide on what the difficulty of a fortune roll should be, as there may not be a direct opposition, so here are a couple of examples: when trying to craft a new device, the difficulty is the device’s tier; when gathering information in preparation for a heist, the difficulty is the target’s tier; when trying to acquire an asset, the difficulty is zero – the result wholly determines the asset you get.

The way progress clocks are filled using fortune rolls, e.g. when working on long-term projects, is significantly different from the original rules in an effort to make everything follow the same logic, so it’s described in somewhat redundant detail below.

Figure out the clock’s tier and the effort you’re going for, as you would normally. Then interpret the roll results: a 6 means the result tier equals the effort; 4-5 means your result is one tier lower (effectively, that’s the complication the GM chose); while 1-3 means no progress has been made at all (or the result is two tiers lower than the effort, if the GM is merciful). Whatever the outcome, compare the result to the clock’s tier, and fill it as described previously.

Further work

While this high-concept rework modifies the core mechanics, I’m sure there are individual abilities and bits of rules that would require interpretation in order to fit. Likewise, actually playing with these rules will without a doubt reveal issues, so if you’re giving this variant a shot, please let me know. And then there are fancier things that could be done, like reworking harm and healing to also fit into this model.

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 (EDIT: yup, got sufficiently annoyed). 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”.