Spire – the game must be played

The kickstarter for Strata, the first full-length supplement for Spire, is currently ongoing. I’ve backed it, just like I backed the original kickstarter, so bear that in mind.

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.

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.

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.

Especially Nasty – Aboleth

Twelve ages have come and gone. Kings and queens have risen and fallen. Archmages and archfiends have ascended and been cast down. Everything changes. Everything but aboleths. In the murky waters of history, they dwell. Better than any other creature, they understand the ebb and flow of power. They feel the currents which bring past into the future. Once the aboleths are satisfied nothing can surprise them, they will emerge from the depths, as inevitable as time itself.

If there’s one weakness aboleths have, it’s their aquatic nature. If forced to crawl on land, an aboleth moves slowly, a literal fish out of water.

Ancient Aboleth

We are but footnotes in the memory archives of aboleths.

Huge level 10 spoiler [ABERRANT]

Initiative +10

Drown in memories +15 vs MD (up to three nearby or far away enemies) – 30 damage, and roll a 1d3 once:

1: Fall of the heroes – If the target has at least one relationship with a heroic Icon, it takes 50 ongoing damage.

2: Tragedy of the undecided – If the target has at least one relationship with an ambiguous Icon, it becomes stunned.

3: Treachery of the villains – If the target has at least one relationship with a villainous Icon, it becomes confused.

The targets are flooded with visions of past Icons’ doom, with them in place of the Icons. The aboleth chooses the targets that will be most affected by the specific attack. The condition ends on an easy save if the target has one Icon relationship of the corresponding type, on a regular save if it has two, and on a hard save if it has three or more. The player can describe the scene from the ages past that their character is seeing in order to get a +5 bonus to their save roll. These scenes cannot repeat.

Slimy tentacles +15 vs PD (2 attacks against different enemies) – the target starts making last gasp saves as the aboleth slime seeps into their skin, turning it transparent. On fourth failure the target falls unconscious, and later becomes the aboleth’s slave, unable to survive long outside the water. If the target is already making last gasp saves when it is hit by this attack, it fails one immediately.

Special: aboleth can use slimy tentacles as a quick action 1/round.

Special: if using the corruption rules, a character has to risk corruption in order to make a last gasp save – they fail it automatically otherwise. An ally can still help them to try and shake it off as usual, but they risk corruption instead unless they find a way not to touch the slime as they clean it off. 

Nastier specials:

Elemental mount: the aboleth is suspended in a sphere of murky water, technically a lobotomized quazi-elemental, which enables it to move over land. It gains +2 to all defenses against creatures outside the sphere. Creatures inside the sphere are engaged with the aboleth, and take a -2 penalty to last gasp saves against the aboleth slime.

AC 24

PD 20    HP 648

MD 25

Petrified Aboleth

The stone idol worshipped by the horrid creatures of the desert hides a dark secret. Trapped by a retreating sea, the aboleth within passes the time until its return submerged in memories.

Large level 4 spoiler [ABERRANT]

Initiative +4

Drown in memories +9 vs MD (one nearby or far away enemy, or three enemies when aboleth is staggered) – 8 damage, and roll a 1d3 once:

1: Fall of the heroes – If the target has at least one relationship with a heroic Icon, it takes 15 ongoing damage.

2: Tragedy of the undecided – If the target has at least one relationship with an ambiguous Icon, it becomes stunned.

3: Treachery of the villains – If the target has at least one relationship with a villainous Icon, it becomes confused.

The target is flooded with visions of a past Icon’s doom, with them in place of the Icon. The aboleth chooses the target that will be most affected by the specific attack. The condition ends on an easy save if the target has one Icon relationship of the corresponding type, on a regular save if it has two, and on a hard save if it has three or more. The player can describe the scene from the ages past that their character is seeing in order to get a +5 bonus to their save roll. These scenes cannot repeat.

Stone shell: the aboleth is encased in a protective shell of petrified slime. It is immobile and has resist non-psychic damage 13+ (non-psychic attacks that roll less than a natural 13 deal only half damage). When the aboleth becomes staggered, its shell cracks: it loses damage resistance, can move, and takes 10 ongoing damage. The ongoing damage ends only when the aboleth ends its turn submerged in water.

AC 20

PD 16    HP 150

MD 17

Progression of progression, level 1

This post will meander not just over tabletop RPGs you may have come to associate with this blog, but over computer and board games as well. This was always the intent behind it anyway – “ponderings on (all kinds of) games”. As this is an overview of the entirety of gaming, there’ll be plenty of generalizations. For every observation I make, you can no doubt find a counter example. Just assume appropriate caveats are applied. 

Sense of pride and accomplishment

The idea of earning your fun permeats some aspects of the gaming hobby. Some would say it’s the defining feature of computer games as a medium – you have to be good enough to even be allowed to access the entire game. You have to put the effort in, work hard as you play in order to deserve the rewards, and the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with them. This idea is an essential part of all progression systems, but is not limited to them. Where does it come from, how has it evolved over time, how does it work, and why does it seem like it’s been taken too far?

Progression operates on a separate layer from the actual game. There’s the game itself: an adventure, a dungeon, a match, a map. And as the result of playing it, you accumulate or unlock something, some reward, typically after the game is concluded. Gold or xp, in-world or out-of-world currency; new items; new characters; new maps. Progression is distinct from more organic changes to the game world as the result of choices made during the game, often present in RPGs, both tabletop and computer, though the line can get blurred. Opening a door with a key you found is an in-game accomplishment, a direct consequence of your actions. Killing a bunch of goblins so you can level up, put points into lockpicking, and open the door – out-of-game accomplishment, no causal in-game link. Grinding lockpicking in a system with direct skill progression to open the door – weeeell.

Most board and card games are self-contained, with one game having no bearing on the next. You play a match, someone wins, you put the game away. Some card games, however, are meant to be played over a series of matches, tracking the score between them. These can be abstract points or actual money, e.g. bridge or poker. While superficially similar, I’d argue these do not feature “progression” as the individual matches or hands do not constitute the true game. They would not make for a satisfying experience on their own, partly due to the random nature of card draws meaning a single match is very dependent on luck, and only through a sequence of such matches an actual winner can be determined.

D&D is to blame, naturally

War games by the very nature of what they simulate would seem to be perfect for sequential games with some form of progression in between. A campaign, if you will. I was somewhat surprised to find (after a very superficial attempt at research) that the first book to formalize such a campaign, Wargaming Campaigns by Donald Featherstone, came out in 1970. Without a doubt campaigns were played before it, but we’re far outside the scope of the article as it is. Notably, Wargaming Campaigns dealt with such subjects as linked scenarios and attrition, and so likely didn’t have rewards for smart play, just an opportunity to lose fewer of your precious troops.

Chainmail, the progenitor of D&D, came out in 1971. While Gygax was likely aware of Wargaming Campaigns (an article by Gygax on fantasy battles had appeared in Featherstone’s Wargaming Newsletter in 1972), there were no progression rules in Chainmail. It was David Arneson’s modifications of Chainmail that introduced experience points and led to the creation of D&D.

The following quote from a Wired article gets to the heart of it: “There was another aspect of the game he wanted to tweak: the fact that it ended. Arneson’s group was having too much fun playing these specific roles to want to part with them after a single game. Outside of the individual games, Arneson created an experience system for characters. Your character would earn experience points based on their success from game to game. After a certain number of poins, a character would “level up.”

I’d argue, completely baselessly, that progression played a significant part in the popularity of D&D. It gave players a reason to play it again. Immersion in a magical world is great, playing out continued adventures of your very own characters is fantastic, but survive another adventure, and you’re likely to level up. That’s some dark magic right there, a lightning in a bottle. 40+ years later, the gaming industry has crawled into the bottle, having kicked the genie out of it. How’s that for a metaphor pileup?

It’s not just the numbers growing larger –  you could start the game at a higher level if you so wished, and it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. It’s the challenges you have to overcome to earn those numbers that give them value. The character sheet in your hands is not simply a cool character you made up, it’s the physical manifestation of weeks or even years of effort. To put it another way, Value = Challenge * Reward.

Challenge

“Challenge” in this equation is a very flexible term. It can be a test of skill: you’ve got to play well to progress. Can you beat the boss? Survive the dungeon? Finish the level? It can also involve risk, a threat to take the already earned progress away. Early RPGs were deadly, a single mistake could end your character’s life. Early computer games were deadly too, though that may have been driven by the desire of the arcade machines to suck coins out of players. Interestingly, games have mostly moved away from this type of challenge, respecting the players’ time (or afraid of scaring them off). Rogue-lite games are an obvious exception to this trend.

Challenge can also be tied to the time put in: the dreaded word, “grind”. Turns out, our monkey brains are bad at distinguishing between these types of challenges, they all contribute value to the rewards we earn. Game designers, bastards that they are, took notice. Note that creating a Challenge is not the only function that grinding serves, but it’s the function the article is focused on.

Grind, that is, repeated execution of a task, is an easy way to increase the perceived value of a reward and keep the players occupied. Grinding is all but impossible in tabletop RPGs due to their very nature: mindless repetition is not a desired state, so few GMs would entertain it, even if players were to try it. You can’t keep killing orcs in the same cave over and over, or jam the spacebar to advance your jump skill. Once transitioned to a computer bereft of common sense, though, a reward system such as xp can be hijacked by an enterprising player. Rules stay the same, but the way we interact with them changes.

Computer is happy to keep spawning orcs in a cave, or pokemon in tall grass (I think that’s how it works? Never actually played Pokemon). Players are happy to keep fighting them, as the rewards they get are, perversely, even more valuable to them. Game designers are happy to save on the effort it takes to provide unique and interesting challenges. Everyone wins. Right?

Meanwhile, consider idle games, e.g. one of the progenitors of the genre, Cookie Clicker, an inadvertent and rhetorically unsuccessful reductio ad absurdum of progression-driven gameplay. Most have barely any gameplay as such – the name of the genre should have been a hint. You earn currency to spend it on things that earn more currency, ad infinitum. There’s some optimization involved, choosing which upgrade to buy next, some shifts in capabilities which require changing up the strategy, but by and large, time spent playing is the main determinant of your success. And yet they can be incredibly addictive to a certain subset of gamers, a combination of low effort with the constant drip of rewards. The Challenge is days and weeks spent running the game, the stupidly large numbers you get are a meager Reward, yet their combination makes the perceived Value high enough to keep players coming back.

Reward

Access to the next level is a reward for beating the previous one. A powerful gun is a reward for finding it. A new ability is a reward for levelling up. All these enable the player to see something new, do something new or at least do the same thing better. Which means there’re limits to the amount of such Rewards. New content requires development time. New abilities are also limited by the design space of the game.

Fortunately for the game developers, Rewards can be just as flexible as Challenges. Vanity items are a reward: skins, titles, badges, anything you can show off, even in a single-player game. There are only so many hats you can possibly wear, yet players are compelled to collect them all. Which is another reward: collectibles. From Pokemon to pretty skins in any MMO to guns in Warframe, it’s not about the functionality of the item or even using it at all. Possession is its own reward, collecting them all is an achievement. That’s another dreaded word – “achievement”.

Do something challenging, get an achievement, feel good. Wikipedia says these can be traced back to 1982, when Activision would send out physical patches to those who got high scores in their games. Achievements can be seen as a dare: bet you can’t avoid killing anyone; bet you can’t beat the boss in two minutes; bet you can’t get both endings. These guide players to experience a game in a manner they may not have otherwise considered, offering more direction than just improving the score. They provide not only a Reward, but the Challenge needed to complete it as well. More rewards, more playtime, happier players.

Here, too, our monkey brains get fooled. Beating a boss in under two minutes is a challenge that tests player’s mastery of the game; getting an achievement for this feels rewarding. Killing 1000 orcs tests persistence at best, or simply happens after a while. Yet getting such an achievement also feels rewarding. And if you’ve already killed 950 orcs, it may be worth your while to go grind some more, to get a tick mark that does nothing the achievement. It’s another form of collectibles, completely divorced from both function and fiction of the game.

Achievements are not uniform: they can be rated by their difficulty, or even give you points. Relatively recently, these achievement points began to be used as a currency or a score, unlocking more rewards in the game, which gives them some substance.

Next time: Value and perversion thereof, kinds of fun, gamification and monetization of gaming.