Finishing a campaign

Roleplaying campaigns end all the time. Too bad they rarely finish. It took me years of GMing to actually complete a campaign, not merely see it dissolve. And I’m not the only one:

Twitter poll showing only 37.5 responders have had their latest campaign wrap up successfully

Far from a representative poll, certainly, but it lines up with my experience. Almost 2/3rds of campaigns don’t reach a satisfying ending. Why do campaigns fail, and how can we improve our chances?

A roleplaying campaign, traditionally, is a sequence of games with same players controlling same characters, with some sort of overarching plot. Anything that goes beyond a one-shot, basically. Finishing a campaign, therefore, typically means resolving this plotline (save the kingdom), personal plot threads PCs might have created or started with (avenge parents’ murder), as well as the majority of plot threads that came up along the way (whatever will happen to the goblin gardener the party had befriended against all odds and seems to care about much more than saving the kingdom or discovering the parents’ murderer).

There’s a plethora of ways to play roleplaying games, none of them wrong. It’s certainly possible to have a sequence of sessions with the same characters going on adventures that don’t have an overarching plot outside the adventures themselves. Perhaps you’re just playing through published adventures one after another, or running a hexcrawl. In that context, finishing a campaign could be as easy as deciding the characters have retired and opened a tavern together – or, more likely, have all perished due to a sereis of bad rolls and worse decisions.

I’m currently running such a campagin as a backup. However, most of the games I’ve ever run have been more, for lack of a better word, ambitious, even when I could not possibly fulfill these ambitions. Like many others, I began my GMing “career” with D&D. It took me a bit to be comfortable enough with the rules to make up my own adventures, but it turned out that campaigns were harder. A large part of that are basic storytelling skills, which take time and effort to develop along with other GMing skills and system mastery.

I often had the start and the end in mind, but no idea how to get from A to Z. And it was always “Z”, not “B” or “C” – a distant, pie-in-the-sky goal. Before we’d get anywhere near an ending, the campaign would fall apart. Ancient prophecies would go on unfulfilled, worlds unsaved, great wrongs unavenged, evil gods unslain. I kept imagining awesome, epic events, and never actually playing through them. I don’t think those were bad games, but they weren’t going anywhere, and I suspect it made it easier for everyone, myself included, to give up on them. It took playing in another GM’s game that actually wrapped up nicely for something to click. I ran a complete campaign that resolved to everyone’s satisfaction soon after. It wasn’t D&D, and it wasn’t a many-year epic, either.

That game was Dark Heresy, and we played through the entire campaign in about 6 months. Why does it matter? Well. I believe the basic structure of character advancement in D&D inadvertently sets its GMs up for failure, and breaking away from its paradigm helped me run a campaign with an actual ending. Paradoxically enough, after a few of these shorter finishable and finished campaigns, I was actually able to run a complete D&D 4e campaign that went all the way from 1 to 30 over 3 years, and had served as the basis for this blog for quite a while.

What’s the first thing you learn about D&D characters? They start at level 1 and go to level 20. First you fight goblins and skeletons, then demons and beholders, then dragons and… larger demons, I guess. You top it all off with a fight against some evil deity or maybe the tarrasque or some other world-ending monstrosity. That’s the implied campaign structure right there.

At a reasonable pace of 5 sessions per level up, that puts us at 100 sessions, or 2 years of weekly games. From purely pratcical point of view, that’s a huge commitment. And then there’s burn out and maintaining a semblance of a coherent narrative throughout. Still, over and over, I’d take aim at a grand finale, seed hints and prophecies, all the while throwing giant rats at the 1st level party.

Now, D&D doesn’t say you’re supposed to only play 1-20 campaigns. It just scatters the character progression charts and all the cool monsters, spells, and magic items before you, a field of very shiny rakes to step on. One solution would be to figure out the level range in which you want to set your game – the actual game, not the goblin-hunting build-up, unless that’s what the game’s about – and play there. Of course, that runs into the other issue: D&D is Not Very Good at high level play. It just gets more and more complicated and unwieldy, and the only way to mitigate that is system mastery by both GM and players. Which, in turn, requires lots of experience. But any group starting a campaign is likely to have players who’re new to the system or roleplaying games in general. So you start at level 1, and by the time the players are comfortable with their characters and the rules, the campaign has fallen apart. Catch-20, if you will.

I’m so fond of this joke, here it is restated in a punchier way:

D&D is complex at high levels, meaning one has to start at low levels and gradually increase system mastery of the entire party. But campaigns often end before you go all the way from 1 to 20, so you never get to play at high levels. That’s Catch-20.

Maybe you do want to start at level 1, to watch the characters grow from nobodies into mighty heroes, to bond with their fellow adventurers over a campfire, a found family that slays together and stays together. Some D&D spin-offs, such as 13th Age and Shadow of the Demon Lord, condense the levelling experience to only 10 levels, much more manageable. They also both suggest a campaign mode where players level up after every session. Back in my D&D days I rejected such ideas as “unearned”, whatever that meant, but the whole point of this article is to help you avoid my mistakes.

And then, of course, there are entirely un-D&D-like systems without character progression charts or implied campaign arcs to hold you hostage. Many, like Fate, Apocalypse World or Spire (and a whole host of others, I don’t mean to imply this is a modern phenomenon) are open-ended: you can keep earning advancements for your character for as long as you play. By removing the prescribed order in which you gain abilities these games also removed the unspoken campaign structure. The campaign doesn’t get needlessly stretched out to fit the implied arc. I’m particularly fond of the approach Heart took, a Spire spin-off I’m yet to play properly. In it, the most powerful abilities characters can get also end them, one way or another. An entirely different kind of implied campaign arc.

So, what are the actual practical take-aways here? I’m glad I asked. First and foremost: don’t start a lengthy campaign with people you’ve just met. Looking back to the poll for the reason campaigns end prematurely, group dissolution is far ahead. This is largely outside of GM’s control. Players may not get along with one another. They may want different things out of RPGs. Their priorities may shift, or life circumstances may change. Most of these are exacerbated by inviting new people you’ve never played with before. Which is not at all to say you shouldn’t do so, how else would you build a gaming group. Still, some or all of these players may drop out sooner or later. Since this is something you can’t control, you have to take it into account. So, when faced with building a new group, come up with a campaign that take weeks or months, not years to resolve. Use this as an excuse to try different games, there are so many good ones out there.

For that matter start with shorter campaigns yourself before you attempt something massive. Grow those storytelling and GMing skills. A few finished short stories are much better than half of a fantasy epic that gets abandoned – take it from someone with half a novel languishing out there on the Internet.

It’s hard to give generic advice given how many different kinds of campaigns and playstyles there are, but here are a few ideas. Figure out a manageable end and major steps on the way there, then hit them relentlessly. This doesn’t mean you should have a prescribed ending you steer your group towards. A common approach is figuring out what would happen if PCs do nothing, then seeing where they take the situation. The key here is maintaining momentum. Even if there is no “global” plot, there likely are individual stories PCs bring to the table.

If you do want to run a lengthy campaign, structure it like a tv series made up of several seasons, each its own arc and a satisfying hopping off point. They don’t know if they’ll be picked up for the next season, and neither do you.

And finally, and this is something I’ve constantly struggled with, use cool ideas as soon as you can, don’t hold them back for the climax that may never come. You will have more cool ideas later, you’re a GM, that’s what you do. But unless you bring your ideas to life at the table, all you’re doing is daydreaming.

Arkham Horror the Living Card Game

Campaign games are a hot new thing in board gaming. I’m quite a sucker for them, and judging by their performance on Kickstarter, so are a lot of other people. Since I’ve backed a few, I figured I might as well write about them. To kick things off, however, let’s take a look at a game with a more traditional publishing method: Arkham Horror the living card game. As opposed to Arkham Horror the board game, its progenitor. This is a minor annoyance at most, but it’s unfortunate Fantasy Flight Games came up with “Elder Sign” and “Eldritch Horror” for its spin-offs and reimaginings, then just gave up.

Campaign games?

What is a campaign game? Simply put, it’s a game with some amount of continuity between sessions: decisions made in one game carry over in some form into the next. Such games most likely include an ongoing plot. This is also how roleplaying games typically work, so it’s no wonder most campaign games can be described as boardgame-ified RPGs, with each player controlling their own character that grows in power between games. It’s not a particularly new idea: Descent 2e, out in 2012, came with a campaign in the core box. There’re most likely much older examples I’m simply unaware of. Progression is a great hook.

Legacy games, such as Pandemic Legacy, are a subtype of campaign games distinguished from the rest by permanent changes made to their components in the course of play. While Pandemic Legacy does give each player a character with their own abilities, and these characters do gain new powers between sessions, the core game is still the original Pandemic, far from an RPG in a box. Other legacy games, which I haven’t played, explore different genres as well.

It’s curious, then, that it took the fairly brief popularity of legacy games to reinvigorate campaign games, which have since gone back to emulating RPGs with great success. Gloomhaven is one of the early examples of this resurgence that I wrote about previously.

The inner workings of horror

AH is a scenario based cooperative card game with deck-building progression between sessions. Each player gets a character – an investigator – and together the players unravel mythos mysteries. Each such character has a deck of cards representing the items they may find, allies they may recruit, or skills they may master. This metaphor is card-thin, as scenarios range far and wide, and accidentally stumbling on your old buddy in a jungle temple is slightly implausible. Thankfully, immersion comes from the scenario itself, not the character actions. And the core of each scenario is a deck of encounter cards each player draws from at the end of their turn, containing monsters, obstacles, and other misfortunes.

Scenarios come with a set of location cards and instructions on how to arrange them, and a few Act and Agenda cards, tracking progression of mythos and investigators. As conditions listed on them are fulfilled, players flip these cards to read the advancing story and learn of their new objectives and threats. You win by getting through the Act deck. Should the Agenda deck run out before you manage to do that, the consequences will range from permanently injuring your characters to ending the world.

If you’re familiar with the board game version of Arkham Horror, most of this should sound very familiar to you. The truly ingenious part of the card game version is the way the encounter deck is constructed. Every card belongs to a particular set, with the core game providing generic sets such as Rats, Dark Cult, Ancient Evil, etc. Similarly, scenarios have their own themed sets of encounter cards. Scenario setup instructs you which sets to mix together to form the encounter deck.

Taken together, this makes every scenario a unique and highly thematic experience. While the core gameplay remains the same, the map, objectives, and threats all change to fit the story. One scenario you’re wandering the mistrustful Dunwich village, another you’re fleeing down a disintegrating train, or lost in another world. The designers do a fantastic job of making the scenarios feel and play differently.

Investigators facing these scenarios are quite varied as well. Their decks are made out of an ever-growing pool of cards split into six types: Guardian, Survivor, Seeker, Rogue, Mystic, Neutral. All but one character belongs to one of these types, meaning their deck can use any of these cards, and has access to some constrained set of other types. These constrains can get more fiddly than I personally like – hunting through hundreds of cards for a particular subtype a character can use is not that much fun. As you may have guessed, every character can use Neutral cards.

In my admittedly limited experience, not all archetypes are created equal. The core activities of the game are killing monsters and investigating – you have to do these to succeed. That’s what Guardian and Seeker are for. Mystic can do anything with a right spell, but is entirely reliant on them, so I wouldn’t play one in a 2-player game where there’s no one to pick up the slack should you fail to draw the needed cards. Rogues generate resources, card advantage, evade monsters (which is occasionally preferrable or easier done than outright killing them, but means you have to keep evading them), and are overall fiddly to play for the sake of being fiddly to play. Survivors, as their name suggests, are good at not dying. Which is great, but doesn’t really help them accomplish any objectives. 4th pick at best.

At the end of an adventure, players earn experience points based on their performance. These often introduce delightful tension between getting on with the main objective, or even escaping once it’s completed, and sticking around to get the precious XP by tackling tough monsters or fully investigating locations. This is one of the joys of campaign games: it matters not only that you win, but how you win.

These experience points are spent on buying more powerful cards. It is a very gradual process – you’ll get somewhere around 3 xp per adventure (the mini campaign in the core set is the exception, packing lots of xp into its shortened form), and a card can cost up to 5 xp. The total number of cards in the deck stays the same, usually 30 plus plot-related cards, unique character cards, and weaknesses. Oh, yeah, weaknesses are cool. Characters get one specific to them, and also draw a generic one. These fire off as soon as they’re drawn, and are always a pain to deal with. These are ongoing problems, objectives, or compulsions characters have.

As for the actual turn-by-turn gameplay, it is fairly straightforward. Characters get 3 actions per turn to spend on moving around, fighting, evading, and investigating, as well as drawing, gaining resources, and playing cards. Any test is resolved by drawing a token from the bag and adding to it the appropriate character stat, with the option to discard cards with a corresponding symbol for a boost. The game offers different distributions of tokens to adjust difficulty, but I’ve never bothered moving away from the default, it is evil enough.

The token bag also contains several tokens with special symbols that have unique effects determined by the scenario. Some campaigns mess around with bag contents, adjusting these special tokens. This hasn’t been particularly effective: in a highly thematic game, having one abstract mechanical effect be replaced with another abstract mechanical effect doesn’t do much.

Despite these quibbles, Arkham Horror is an excellent game, offering thematic, engaging, and tense experience. But this is a campaign game, and individual game sessions are only a part of the whole story.

Campaign of terror

To talk about the campaign side of AH, we have to talk about how it is sold. It is a “Living Card Game”, an invention of Fantasy Flight Games meaning every year they put out a box starting a new campaign, called “cycle”, with two scenarios in it, then every couple of months a smaller box with the next scenario, for a total of 8 scenarios. All of these contain character cards as well. Unique to AH, a couple of years after the final release in a cycle FFG puts out a “Return to” capstone expansion, with, essentially, patches to all scenarios in a cycle, offering yet more cards. As the name suggests, these releases are a good excuse to replay the cycle.

The Living Card Game model is a definite improvement on the traditional Trading Card Game model from the consumer’s point of view: you’re guaranteed to get everything for a sane price so long as you keep up with the releases. It was great for Android: Netrunner! For AH, things are more complicated. We’ll get to the practical aspects later, for now let’s focus on the game itself.

While each scenario can be played individually, I doubt many people buy random scenarios to play them on their own. I certainly followed cycles, playing through The Dunwhich Legacy, The Path to Carcosa, and half way through The Forgotten Age (then current events made in-person games more complicated). Bear in mind I’m simply unaware of any developments and tweaks to the formula further cycles may have introduced.

The LCG model means every scenario can only reference cards from core set and the first box of its cycle – the players may not have bought the ones in-between. Moreover, it means the plot can’t actually branch. At most you get a choice which of the starting two scenarios to tackle first, as they come in the same box. And you certainly can’t have scenarios that don’t occur at all in a given playthrough: people paid good money for those scenarios!

This means the campaigns are linear. There’re still consequences to the choices you make and objectives you accomplish, but these affect relatively minor things: a card representing an ally you saved, a modification to setup if you previously managed to kill a monster. There are attempts to vary this up. In Path to Carcosa, you track your belief/skepticism, which had significantly affected at least one of the scenarios in the cycle. Likewise, in Forgotten Age you track just how much you’ve pissed off the snake god, though not pissing off the snake god seems like the strictly superior option: basically, you have to avoid killing snakes or snake people get buffed, meaning you can’t kill snake people and have to avoid them, but you chose characters that are bad at avoiding monsters which is why you were killing snakes in the first place. We’ve had to give up by the second scenario in that playthrough and start over.

Scenarios themselves go to some length to be replayable. A typical example would be including two versions of each location and randomly choosing one during setup. Thing is, that’s the wrong kind of replayability. A location that works differently, or a changed layout, is great if you’re going to replay the same scenario immediately. Short of failing a scenario utterly and deciding to redo it, we’ve never done this. Rather, you’re much more likely to revisit a cycle a year or two later, perhaps once you got the “Return to” box, at which point you simply won’t remember any of these minor variations.

The main distinguishing feature of AH are the distinct scenarios, threaded together into a narrative. I can’t say we played the game for the gripping plot – the writing in Dunwich Legacy was terribly cliched, though improved in Path to Carcosa and Forgotten Age. It’s not the story, but the ongoing story that makes AH special. There are stand-alone scenarios you can get, to be slotted anywhere in the campaign, and they’re fine as far as scenarios go, but we couldn’t wait to get back to the main story.

You could play these stand-alone scenarios, or even any scenario from a cycle, on their own, and it would be a good experience. But by definition it would be a lesser experience than what the game has to offer. Moreover, since AH can be said to emulate RPGs in a board game format, it is fair to compare its scenarios to published adventures. You wouldn’t play through the same published adventure or a linear campaign of such adventures over and over.

Bottom line is you will have a lot of fun playing through a cycle, but won’t have many reasons to revisit it, other than maybe with the “Return to” expansion. And if you’re looking to get into the game right now, there are multiple complete cycles with the capstone expansions out there, and there’s absolutely no reason (other than monetary) to deliberately exclude them from your playthrough. Further undermining any thought of replaying a cycle is the fact that you could simply buy another one, fresh and exciting. The machine that is FFG keeps pumping them out. Which is where we get to the aforementioned monetary issues.

A cycle gives you 8 scenarios to play through, each can be done in about an hour (more with greater number of players). All in all, about 4 evenings worth of play-time. To get a complete cycle, consisting of the “deluxe” starting box, 6 scenario packs, and the “Return to” box, you’d have to pay $150 USD before shipping. The LCG model deliberately obfuscates this, what’s $15 every couple of months for a game you love. After a few years – quite a lot, it turns out. If you’re like me, there’s also the cost of card sleeves, which adds up over the hundreds of cards you’ll be dealing with. As far as money to hours of entertainment go, this isn’t a great ratio for a board game.

The practicalities of getting all these boxes are quite ugly, too. There is no way to get the entire cycle as a single set. Scenarios from past cycles are frequently sold out in various outlets, and for whatever reason this is not uniform: when looking at getting another cycle, I ended up ordering boxes from 3 different stores. Which means more shipping costs and more headache.

Overall, Arkham Horror the Card Game (ugh) is a fantastic game that I just can’t recommend without significant caveats. Maybe your tolerance for replaying the same storylines is higher than mine. Maybe you simply have more disposable income. Knock yourselves out, you won’t regret it. I, however, looked at the cost of catching up after missing a couple of cycles, and understood the true meaning of horror.

In a perfect world

The review part is done, here comes pure self-indulgence. How would I change AH to make it not just a great game, but a good product? Let’s take the business model of releasing a pack every couple of months as a given from up high. Each such pack has 60 cards in it, consisting of scenario and character cards. First, I’d separate these, alternating packs of character cards and scenarios. I realise currently the character cards are used to pad out the total count if a given scenario doesn’t need that many cards for itself, but it’s just cleaner that way.

With the freed up space, we’d be able to fit more scenarios into a single pack. Act and Agenda cards are neat, but their function can just as easily be fulfilled by a piece of paper, or, better yet, an app. More space found! Without getting too greedy, and with changes to the role of “deluxe” boxes at the start of every cycle we’ll discuss in a moment, we could fit 4 scenarios into a 60 card pack. This obviously means extra design work, but the behemoth that is FFG can probably afford the static cost of hiring more designers.

These 4 or so scenarios would form their own campaign, so that each pack would actually make sense as an individual product. And because they’re all sold in the same pack, this mini campaign could branch, e.g. scenarios 2 and 3 representing different clues you could pursue after scenario 1, with the order in which you do them affecting scenario 4. Not only have we doubled the amount of scenarios, we created a reason to replay them.

The core box, as well as the expansions that kick off a cycle would contain not just sets of encounter cards but locations as well, grouped by a theme that unifies a cycle, to be used throughout. We almost have that already: Dunwich Horror is backwards villages and woods, Path to Carcosa is urban adventures, Forgotten Age is jungles and lost temples. This is where AH’s approach to replayability, different versions of locations and the like, would actually work: if you can build 20 different versions of Arkham, it doesn’t matter that you keep visiting it in various scenarios. And if most of the cards a scenario requires can be drawn from this “generic” pool, we can focus on the unique cards that set it apart. In effect, we’re sacrificing a bit of scenario uniqueness for a lot more use.

In addition to these releases, there would be free campaigns regularly published online/to the app, that mix up existing sets from different releases, thus incentivising their purchase while providing further value to those who bought them. FFG already has some free individual scenarios online, so they’re moving in the same direction. And of course, if the locations are actually designed to be slightly more generic, it’s much easier for fans to create their own campaigns.

Hell, since we’re fantasizing, let’s go further. The approach of mixing up card sets to create a scenario could be extended to mixing up scenarios to create a campaign. Suppose each scenario has tags: city, village, temple, woods, journey, hunted, mystery, invasion, artifact, other world, etc. Then a campaign could consist of scenarios defined along the lines of “city + Cthulhu + scenario specific cards” tied together by plot. As more sets are released, the number of permutations would grow. Again, somewhat more generic scenarios, but a lot more replayable.

This is the crucial element that I believe is missing in AH as it now stands, its unrealised potential: while the characters get new options with each set released, scenarios and cycles remain static. The game gets wider, but not deeper. It could be so much more.

Dungeoncrawling by default

D&D is the “default” system many people use, for a variety of reasons, even if it really doesn’t fit the game. There’s a related trend I’ve come across, mostly in OSR: “default” gameplay.

I should say upfront I’m really not an OSR person. But I’m curiuos about it, and as part of this curiosity I got myself a few recent Kickstarted games: Electric Bastionland, Ultraviolet Grasslands, and Seekers Beyond the Shroud, as well as looked long and hard at MÖRK BORG. I’ll describe them in brief, see if you can spot a commonality between them.

Electric Bastionland is a game set in The Only City That Matters, currently going through electrification. There’s aliens from living stars walking the streets side by side with plush and wire mockeries, while Underground is an unreal space that connects everything and is populated by machines that just want to test people.

The characters are losers who failed at their previous careers (failed careers taking up most of the book) and now have to pay back their massive debt. Together they dungeoncrawl.

Seekers Beyond the Shroud is a game I couldn’t bring myself to play, and the first time I actually noticed this trend. It is a solo RPG, which is what initially attracted me, taking place in a modern day occult setting. The player is, unsurprisingly, an occultist. Learning spells, summoning spirits, going on missions.

Every day you choose a single thing to do, and there’s a very interesting mechanic where deterministic star alignment and the like makes certain activities easier or better at any given day. So you can plan your week ahead: make potions on Tuesday, perform a ritual on Wednesday, go on a mission using both of those on Thursday. I’m vague on details by now, as I’ve only read it once, and it was some time ago.

The missions, the meat of the game, are dungeoncrawling, mostly against regular humans. Ten or so skills for every kind of weapon were an early warning sign. There’s also astral missions, which I didn’t even get to, but I expect they’re dungeoncrawling against sprits.

I haven’t read MÖRK BORG, but here’s my understanding of it from the preview materials and some conversations about it: MÖRK BORG is a black metal artbook of a game set in a dying world. There is a random prophecy verse table that will eventually proclaim the end, and that’ll be that. Characters are scumbags trying to get theirs in the last days or years they have.

Together they dungeoncrawl.

Why do they dungeoncrawl? Nothing in the previews addressed this, and utlimately I decided against buying the book.

I haven’t read Ultraviolet Grasslands yet, as I’m still waiting for the physical copy to arrive. It is described as a psychodelic metal trip across a “vast and mythic steppe filled with the detritus of time and space and fuzzy riffs.” I fully expect dungeoncrawling to be the default activity as well, but there it does seem to fit better.

You may have noticed by now that I use the term “dungeoncrawling” very loosely here. To me, it’s the general ethos of a session being made up of a series of potentially hostile encounters (and it encompasses various other ___crawls). Indeed, EBL has some discussion on adventuring in the city, making every shopping trip an adventure, mapping out its transport lines and having encounters along the way, etc. Even though, unlike SBtS and MB, the adventures are not literally happening in a dungeon, the core gameplay remains the same.

In the one session I’ve had in EBL so far, the players didn’t want to fight anyone. Not because their characters had moral objections to violence, but because they were in the middle of a (the) metropolis, and were a failed newspaper intern, a failed urchin, and a failed lecturer. They ran, bribed, were detained and waited for release, and even when presented with a clear opportunity to attack their opponent absconding with the treasure they chose to trick him instead. It was a good session! It barely used the rules.

And I know, I know, that’s how OSR operates. The rules are light and only brought out when needed. But there’s a difference between not using the rules for fighting while avoiding the fight through cunning, and not using the rules for fighting while navigating tangled streets or dealing with power-mad bureaucrats. And there’s barely any other rules! Even character growth/change covered by the rules happens when you take damage.

EBL does have a simple structure for random event tables, and you could go far on those. So why aren’t there a dozen tables to start us off for essential city activities? There are several given as an example, of them only Engaging in Bureaucracy is something players would do to actually achieve their goals in the game (as opposed to Going Carousing or Ordering “The Special” – fun distractions). Of course, I’d also want to have some codified way for players to influence these random events, not just roll a d6, and there I go designing a system that would actually do weird metropolis gaming.

Having an in-setting justification for dungeoncrawling through the streets would have helped, I think. Bastionland doesn’t seem to be an active war-zone, after all. Unfortunately, EBL paints its setting in extremely broad strokes, a technique worthy of further examination, and doesn’t elaborate beyond “the city can be dangerous.”

We don’t have to play in Bastionland itself. We could go outside into the wide world of Deep Country where presumably any OSR module would fit in with little issues, and our disinherited socialites and failed avantguardsmen (best “class” name ever) won’t fit at all. At which point… why are we playing EBL?

This may sound like I hate EBL, and dungeoncrawling, and OSR, and fun. I really don’t. EBL is a fine game that does exactly what the author set out to accomplish. Presumably it’s exactly what the audience wanted, too. At the end of the day it’s my personal problem if a game is not doing what I wanted it to do.

Maybe it’s the other way around, and this is my personal blind spot. Maybe others are happily playing these games to their fullest without feeling like dungeoncrawling is the one thing they are supposed to be doing. Then again, here’s a really cool dungeon generator for MÖRK BORG.

In all these games and undoubtedly plenty more, it feels like the authors started with the default gameplay they know and love, and built a pretty setting around it without once questioning how they fit together or whether there is some other kind of activity that would also be fun to engage in, and expect the players to do the same. I wish I could.

P.S.: now I’m curious what a non-dungeoncrawling OSR game would look like, if such a thing even exists. Any recommendations?

The Facility

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

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

Continue reading


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

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

REQUIREMENT: Have an ideological falling out with your deity.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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


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

Usherer of the World Yet to Come

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

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

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

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

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

What does it offer? Birth.

What will it cost? Death.

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

REQUIREMENT: Die. Dream of Phoenix. Be reborn.

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

1 scar: 1d3 damage, bloodbound

2 scars: 1d3 damage, bloodbound, piercing

3 scars: 1d6 damage, bloodbound, piercing

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Spire – the game must be played

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unified Theory of Blades in the Dark

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

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

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


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.


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.