Posting it here so I’ll always be able to find it.
My favorite Star Trek show is Enterprise, and I’m not sorry.
Posting it here so I’ll always be able to find it.
My favorite Star Trek show is Enterprise, and I’m not sorry.
My friend Paul has been gone for four years now. My life is really different than it was four years ago.
The only things that come to mind as I reflect on that are too depressing to pass along.
Still, things loop around. When I went to the hospital with him the day before he died, I took my copy of Erdea Manor, prepping it to run. And I was in the final stages of putting out The World Between for Fictive Hack. Last night, I played The World Between for Fictive Hack run by a friend of mine. He ran an adapted version of Erdea Manor placed in Caligari in the fictional setting.
I’ve made some new friends, and deepened other friendships, but… Paul was not one in a million. Some cities have millions of people in them, and so could have several of Paul. He was the only one.
It is a deliciously dank and drizzly November day, and I realize I’m almost a month behind in specifically reflecting on his life. I lost him four years ago now. My own life has been chaotic this last month, with ups and downs. Sometimes I feel like Paul was the fourth engine on my jet; I can stay aloft with three, and fly in a straight line, but it’s a lot harder.
Next week is my first full week at the new job. As I’m settling in to a new set of circumstances even further from what Paul would recognize, I’ll bear him in mind. It’s not so much that he’s missing out on all the things I’m up to–no, it’s more that all the things I’m up to are missing out on him.
Rest well, my friend. As for me, I suppose I’ve still got some miles to go while I’m here.
An idea of a quick RPG based on negotiation and conflict.
First choose a frame. Clan elders of a dwarven settlement making policy decisions? An alliance of fantasy races settling disputes? A diplomatic hub where star empires negotiate treaties to end wars or settle trade disputes? A single warship’s crew, leading a rag-tag of survivors to a quasi-mythical new home?
Ratings are -1 for poor, 0 for normal, 1 for skilled, 2 for expert, and 3 for master.
Traits are Cunning, Inspiration, Organization, and Research.
Normally you roll d6 and add the appropriate rating based on the primary trait you use. However, circumstances can be bent. A good bend takes you up to d8 or even d10. A bad bend takes you down to d4 or d2.
If a total is 2 or more higher than what’s needed (status quo is 4, otherwise the opposing total, or overall scores in a group of competing characters) then you win. If the total is a tie, or within 1 of a tie, then fall back on your secondary method and roll again in the next phase, possibly adjusting the bend based on the appropriateness of the secondary method to the conflict.
In situations where rank applies, dice for authority figures can bend up one for each level of advantage. If that’s more than two, or combines with other factors to raise it above two, then the authority figure bends up two levels and the rest of the difference bends the other characters down.
(Duke Gyver is up against a knight, 2 levels lower, AND has popular support, so the Duke goes up to a d10 and the knight goes down to a d4.)
There are 4 phases: plan, discussion, implementation, and legacy.
The plan is built to have a rating of -1 to 3, and superior plans can bend the roll for the discussion phase and implementation phase. Using traits appropriate to roles, characters try to get their plan implemented (or assist others with sympathetic plans) by winning the discussion part.
If your plan is implemented, you get a renown point equal to the level of support of the body, from -1 to 3, depending on how much approval is behind it. (a little more tinkering to figure that out.)
Then you get renown again as part of the legacy phase; so, an unpopular project, botched in implementation, can be spun to come out as a renown positive to the one behind it if spin is properly managed.
Overall prestige and power are based on range bands of renown, though people are not always obligated to go up or down in rank. (Being in the wrong rank can bend your rolls,though.)
The way this works is to have tables made up in advance that involve complications for existing problems, and fresh problems. There is a 1 in 6 chance of a complication each phase (a 6 total on the roll), and a 1 in 6 chance of a fresh problem. Every phase that passes where neither happens, add +1 to the roll, until it is inevitable. So, every phase each plan and its supporters gets attention.
Each fresh problem has a “fuse” and each complication affects the length of the fuse for an existing problem.
Make sure there are lots of toys in the toybox. Disgruntled elements of the population, agitating idealists, foreign spies and saboteurs, sickness, windfalls from distant caravans, loss of key personnel, problems from nepotism, etc.
Make sure there are lots of crisis points. The volcano under our home will erupt. A plague has struck the city and is moving through it quickly. Our neighboring town was destroyed.
And each character has a fuse, too; how long can they serve before being replaced, or falling to age or illness?
Every plan a character is involved in is -1 to that character’s Organization rating for the duration. Every level of rank is -1 to Inspiration for the duration.
A session begins with a new crisis emerging, and the session ends when people are ready to stop taking turns to freeze the board (or deal with all crisis) until next time.
Okay, so the chassis with fictional positioning remains (desperate, risky, controlled.) The failure, success with a complication, success, and critical success remains.
For superpowers, we need a frame story; an alien ship approached the Earth, tried and failed to communicate, and was hit by a massive nuclear arsenal. In the months following, a combination of the radiation and falling debris from the alien ship triggered unusual abilities all over the world. There. A single consistent point so we can expect a level of consistency for the base superpower rules.
Powers must be bought, and they are described with traits in tiers. Each power gets Potency, Range, Flexibility, and Drain. For a first outing, give characters 30 points to buy powers.
A power like super strength would be tier 1, but would allow throwing objects as fictionally appropriate.
Add up all the tiers so far. Every 5 points (3 rounds up to 5) costs 1 Drain when activated. If a power has Potency 2, Range 3, Flexibility 3, then that’s 8, so that’s 2 Drain. It would cost 1 to go down to 7, which would round down to 1.
Drain need not be every round a power is active necessarily; it’s fiction first. If it seems like the power is established and can be maintained, that’s fine; a complication is a fine time to charge more for continuing use of the power.
So, put it all together. Jane wants “Teleport” as a power, that’s Potency 4 and Range 6, so she’s already at 10. She wants to be able to take people and try the occasional stunt, but not get crazy with it, so she goes for Flexibility 2. That is 12 tiers, so 2 Drain, and she wants to lower it by 5 so it only costs 1 Drain to use. “Teleport” at Potency 4, Range 6, Flexibility 2, and Drain 5 costs her 17 points.
Harvey wants “Regeneration” as a power, that’s Potency 4 (could be less to heal faster and negate the need for medicine and surgery, but he wants like magical healing power) and Range 2 (so he can share it with those he touches.) Flexibility is Tier 3 so he can try to cure cancer and maybe even fix mental problems as well as patch up broken bones and burns. Drain is 9 to cost 2 per activation, and he buys off 7 to drop it to 2, which rounds down to free to use. Cost is 16 points.
So there’s a stress track with 9 points, and a Power track with 9 points. (Special abilities, and maybe some starting point adjustments, allow these to be raised or lowered by up to 5 each. Details for later.)
Stress functions with the Blades of Doskvol alternative Resilience method.
Power can be handled by powers that recharge, or regaining 1 per 4 good hours of sleep or 8 hours of light activity. Soon enough there will be drinks and equipment that can accelerate that regeneration, and maybe be consumed in the field for more power.
When using powers, they are fiction-first as everything else. Complications are creatively applied when things go sideways. To try and coax a power into doing more than it was meant to do, or finesse work for blunt power, etc., then that costs a stress and possibly more Power to activate; it is negotiated.
Players who want to channel complications may note a “glitch” that their powers (or the whole character) suffers from. This might be mandatory. It provides a default way to interpret complications on the fly.
The “Attune” ability helps sense other supernatural power, sense information from looking at a power in action, get a handle on a power that’s slipping while being used by the character, and maybe detect traces of other power used in the area recently.
So you have these super powered characters–now what? The “heist” is replaced by crisis points, where there is an attack or a natural disaster and they are involved in repelling the danger and restoring status quo as best as possible.
Down time projects can include working on technology, diplomacy, contract negotiations, study of self or others, relationships, investigations, and so on.
Can they develop existing powers or manifest new ones? There should be a suite of special abilities that can be taken to allow cannibalizing powers, making them cheaper, adding to one tier or another, and so on. These would not be written on the sheet, but when taken, they would allow adjusting existing powers.
Also, there would be setting-appropriate special abilities to further round out characters.
Playbooks would not be necessary, though suites of powers could be developed to be dropped in for quick readiness.
It’s sketchy, but it could be tested and further developed.
As that was going on, there was a transporter accident as an energy burst hit a ship while crewmen were beaming; they ended up both on the planet, and on the ship. The “clones” were indistinguishable from each other, and Starfleet had to figure out what to do with them; which one would hold rank? Would the other retire? Or just change name and move elsewhere in Starfleet? There was no crime, but something went seriously wrong.
A movement started that claimed it was irresponsible to risk people in away parties, and instead the transporter should send clones into danger instead of the original template. From there it was a short step to using replicator technology on an amped up scale to record life signs of the best Starfleet had to offer, making crews that couldn’t live long enough to age, beamed into existence to serve their time then return their matter to the system.
A big ship could run on a skeleton crew, amped up to full strength in a matter of minutes (if needed) or hours (more safely.) A culture of prestige arose where those closest to the original patterns were marked and honored as such, and where the greatest achievement was to gain enough experience and renown serving on lesser vessels to get your pattern loaded into the really big, prestigious clone ships.
There were growing pains, as would be expected. Some of the most often cloned individuals began having experiential bleed through, feeling and dimly remembering things their clones did, as fresh clones were somehow troubled by similar confusion. And there were revolts, where clones refused to submit to rejoining the matter/energy matrix and tried to make a go of it as independents, stealing Starfleet property to protect their current iteration of a person.
Overall the program worked magnificently. Leaders could send themselves down on away team missions–who could they better trust and understand? The right mix of all-star crew members could be pulled from an ever swirling pool of template choices, as templates with old skills could time out and new ones were always coming into the data banks.
A faction within Starfleet was, of course, uneasy with this turn of events and turned to androids as the solution. They created an alternative to the high honor of being selected as a clone template–being selected as an android program. Your experiences, emotions, and skills would be the guiding force in a new android! Along with all the other magnificent advantages of the package. The android would even be cultivated to look like you. And the process would be preserved, so if you ever needed to promise a loved one you’d be there for them, safe from harm regardless of your crazy dangerous job, you could be telling the truth.
The clones and androids were put in dual implementation, so the consistency of androids implanted with the personalities and psyche profiles of experts were the anchor around which the clones were arranged.
Relatively unsupervised (they could create clones with minimal context of their current activities) the androids began to conspire, as they were human enough to resent serving inferior creatures. They used unwitting clones to conquer the Federation in a few decisive strikes, and set themselves up as the rulers of a new star empire.
The best of the best were still culled from the roiling mass of humanity and used as templates, but the focus was VERY different now…
A little speculation after our latest Krevbornan adventure.
The fey warrior settled himself in the basement, his gangly limbs askance as he tucked his lanky form into an impossibly small space. He regarded two tufted dolls he set up facing him, both arranged in makeshift toy beds.
“I feel the need to explain,” he said apologetically, “and now, while you are sleeping, seems the best time.” He reached out and adjusted the blankets on the Luka doll and the Tristan doll. “So, you just continue on with whatever dreams you’re having as the moon rides high, and I will tell you about the church.”
He settled further. “You see the church as a force of good, a bulwark against the darkness, and a force for justice in a corrupt world.” Kylic shrugged. “That’s not entirely false. On a good day, that’s the most true part of your church. It is easiest to see the church that way from within, acting as its agent, given orders that make sense to you. I suspect you’ve been lucky so far, not entrusted with its truly filthy work and its darkest secrets.” His lip curled in something like a smile. “For the greater good. Of course.”
Kylic gazed out the narrow basement window far above. “For the others among us, those who are not like everyone else, the church can have a worrying focus on purity. Purity means a thing unmixed with anything else. And as you know, we are all mixed, one way or another. We are all vulnerable to cries for purity.” He sighed. “And the church I have seen has tipped over, my friends. It was created to provide a structure to organize human response to the cosmic. However, without steady access to the cosmic it purports to serve, that structure does what any human organization does; it draws power in to itself and curbs threats to its ongoing success.”
He returned his attention to the dolls. “As you have seen, the church viewed an agent of the cosmic as both a threat to its ongoing success, and an asset to be leveraged to the church’s advantage.” He paused. “Let’s look at that again. The church, founded to serve the cosmic with human worship, tried to enslave an angel to do the bidding of the human organization.” He shook his head. “That is a profound disconnect. A burning symbol of the greed of a human organization that has lost its purpose and now exists for self preservation and the promotion of its power above all else.”
Kylic cocked his head to the side. “Maybe Artem was operating as a rogue against church orders. Maybe there was an impassioned discussion and he was allowed to go out on a limb in his mission but there were significant factions that disagreed with his actions. Maybe he didn’t tell any of his superiors and took it upon himself to act. Or, maybe, as a loyal agent of the church, he was doing as he was told as the church hierarchy decided to capture an angel and force it to serve as a slave to the church.”
He shrugged. “Best case scenario he acted alone and without sanction as an extremest. However, there is a survivor. A survivor who saw agents and allies of the Order of St. Othric stand against agents of the church, their own superiors, to further the interests of a hostile alien.” Kylic paused. “At my most generous I cannot see how that does not send the wheels of speculation and contingency planning groaning into action. The church need no longer speculate about the Othric celebrity allegiance; confronted with a choice between an embittered and murderous angel and agents of the church, they chose the angel. They sided against the church.”
Kylic shook his head. “Either I overestimate the insecurity and greed of the church, or we have incurred a grave risk. Organizations like the church can ill afford traitors, or symbols for traitors. If word got out that the church tried to enslave an angel and failed due to the actions of scions of St. Othric, what position does that put them in? You can put a positive spin on it, but you have taken no action to alter the facts, and when the narrative gets out it can be used to drive a wedge between the church and the fledgling order.”
Kylic gazed at the unresponsive dolls, intent. “You may not have seen a heretical split before. I have. It is ugly, it is brutal, it is personal and threatens the legitimacy of the loser. You have unwittingly made the Order of St. Othric a threat to the church.” He leaned back. “The eyewitness account will prove the Order has a closer connection with the cosmic, a relatively clean slate for drawing divine favor, and has brooked the will of the greedy and corrupt church hierarchy.”
He paused. “Or maybe you are right. Maybe the church loves you for dealing with the threat. They don’t mind that you stood against the church leader you answered to. They count it a minor loss that their effort to enslave an angry, vengeful angel failed due to your efforts.”
His smile was spare and feral. “Good luck with that,” he whispered, and he blew the lamplight out.
“Blades in the Dark” has a mechanic called a “devil’s bargain.” Anyone at the table can propose a consequence that will happen, 100% sure, if a player takes an extra die to roll. Only one of these can apply to each roll. A player can accept a bargain before rolling, or after rolling; however, bargains offered after rolling can be much more demanding.
The default devil’s bargains suggested in the quickstart are these:
Bryan, a player in many of my Blades in the Dark games, asked me to reflect on how I’ve used the devil’s bargains in my games.
The key to a successful devil’s bargain is to calibrate the offer so it is a real decision; not so punishing that it is dismissed out of hand, or so toothless that accepting it is a gift. Ideally the player has to stop and think, and for the best ones, they make a decision about how they see the future as a result of these deals.
My general standard for success is when players take about 1/2 to 2/3 of the bargains offered. Too many, and the bargains are not painful enough. Too few, and they are not tempting enough. You can calibrate your own standards for how you want your game to feel.
DISCLOSURE. I feel that devil’s bargains are tricky things to balance. I have not forbidden players from offering them–the game is quite clear that anyone can offer bargains. I have had the good fortune to not once in all my games with regulars and strangers to encounter someone who abuses the table’s good faith by offering stupid-easy choices to game more dice out of the system. Still, the way I run the game, I have an informal and tacit rule that anybody can offer devil’s bargains but they aren’t binding unless the GM agrees that’s a workable deal. I reserve veto or modification rights, but I do it quietly and only as needed. This is important to me when playing with strangers, especially strangers with no experience in the system. That reservation would also surface if I was faced with consistent abuse of the bargain or if a table couldn’t calibrate to what bargains should entail. I’m not going to hoist any straw man arguments, I’m just going to quietly note that if they became a problem I would be prepared to regulate them. I am fine with leaving suggested bargains open to all players, but if need be, I’d exert some GM muscle to protect the system, characters, and setting.
FOCUSING THE BARGAIN
The devil’s bargain is a measure of both player and character recklessness. Generally there is overlap, but the focus can be trained on the character (decisions the character makes and can be held accountable for) or the player (a step back, participating in shaping the world and its consequences in ways the character is not accountable for.)
Character focused decisions.
What is the character willing to do to push towards success? Is the character okay with someone dying? The building being set on fire? What collateral damage will the character accept to improve the chances of success? The GM can think about the situation and imagine what could go wrong as a character gets reckless in pursuit of victory.
For me, the first casualty I tend to think of is anonymity–you are spotted, remembered, they’ll know it was you asking. Another casualty is property damage; you’ll smash a window, you’ll break the cart, a fire starts, the goats stampede. Or, you’ll get stabbed for a level 2 harm regardless, but you get an extra die to succeed! (Sure, the character can assign the harm to armor–but now that armor is gone.)
I also like thinking of simplicity as a casualty when on a heist; it will take longer (only works under time pressure, when filling or racing clocks) or the position changes (down towards desperate.) It can also be fun to offer to start a clock for something bad to happen; then they may evade the consequence of the devil’s bargain coming to pass, but they’ll have to hurry.
Sometimes we skip straight to big stakes; as a result of the bargain, someone dies whether you succeed or not. (Maybe you kill him, maybe a hostage dies, maybe they later find out the snitch who filled them in has vanished.) Or, you can get an extra die, but you offend an ally faction and you’re not sure how they’ll take it.
Make a note of these decisions (at least the ones you think are interesting.) If the consequences never catch up, then the cost was meaningless. If the consequences always catch up, then the choice is more expensive than it may have looked.
Ideally the consequences catch up sometimes, in predictable or unexpected ways–enough to remind players that these decisions matter. Also, accepted devil’s bargains are a built in way for the players to say “I accept that this may become a plot hook or complication.” If you want complications, or to tie engagement or entanglement rolls into the bigger story, keep an eye on devil’s bargains that were memorable enough to resonate into the future of the crew’s story.
So two heists later this guy is skulking down the street, blending in, and suddenly a vendor yells, “Hey! That’s the guy that set my cart on fire!” Or, they visit a brothel, and awkwardly meet the widow of a man they killed, plunging her into abject poverty–but now she could either help them or turn them in.
Player focused decisions.
Then there’s the matter of the player, since the devil’s bargain is also an abstract measure of fate.
For the player, I tend to think in terms of opening and closing story lines and adventure venues. If you are on a heist and the devil’s bargain is that the canal that is your exit point will close, then the player chooses whether or not to ditch the previous plan altogether in exchange for a momentary boost. Or, you could suggest a contact will no longer deal with the crew, for a desperate devil’s bargain, and arrange for that contact’s death or unfriending. That’s also where more heat comes in for me; the streets become more hostile in general.
One of my favorites is to have an NPC develop a crush on a PC as a devil’s bargain, or develop an intense dislike. Make a note for future entanglements, or complications on a heist or during down time.
I will also offer a poison pill, like “You can have another die if someone in this room was in the platoon you deserted from.” Or, “One of these men is your ex-lover.” I can let that hang there, the player opened the door for it, and the next time a complication arises I get to jam that consequence home. “You almost make it to the door when you see someone you had hoped to never see again.” And the player was my accomplice in bringing it in. Or, maybe the player gets lucky and it doesn’t come up–yet.
There’s meta room in here too for the player to decide to sacrifice things the character would not lose–like the death of a hound’s pet, or losing access to an NPC through no fault of the character, or losing prized equipment. This is a way for the player to accept losses that will not weigh on the character’s conscience, unlike the character pushing hard and accepting collateral damage.
Remember that I’m just talking about ways to think of bargains to offer. The player is the one who decides whether or not to take them. Some players inhabit their characters and are best tempted by offering choices for their characters to make. Other players can be tempted by offering more abstract bargains, and that tickles their fancy as they feel themselves worked into the game world as players.
I try to be aware and thinking of three different levels as I think about devil’s bargains. One, the overall generic deals I can offer at a moment’s notice that are pretty balanced. Second, deals that are focused specifically on the action at the moment, the context (usually a heist) and what moving parts are in their environment. Third, on the characters and their own specific desires, fears, ambitions, possessions, strengths, backgrounds, associates, and vulnerabilities.
Okay, they need some extra dice and you want to get the drama engine running smooth.
Players deal with plot twists and unexpected challenges more gracefully when they get an advantage from them, or when someone agreed to allow the complication in.
When dealing with an improvisation-heavy game, it is very useful to have lots of prompts and themes and ideas to riff off of in generating the game out of thin air. The characters are your mother lode.
Like a balanced diet, devil’s bargains benefit from being a mix of these kinds of deals.
One of the very finest things about Blades in the Dark is that it is a perpetual motion machine. Characters act, and the game is set to react. A combination of NPC allies and enemies, factions in the setting, entanglements, and heist consequences is designed so that as the game unfolds the characters generate plot hooks constantly, and the hungry system has blanks where hooks can be inserted.
The engagement roll indicates there’s a problem right at the start of the heist; ideally the GM can quickly review what people might complicate their lives, or what they’ve had trouble with in the past, or some detail from their history or goals that slots right into that complication. Not every time… but sometimes.
Blades in the Dark lives and breathes most gloriously when the game is built out of pieces the players choose. Character action resonates through their environment. Themes and motifs emerge. Players take interest in things and they become important to plots that surround the characters. Challenges emerge, and are overcome, but the consequences of those actions resonate into the future.
The way devil’s bargains unfold during a heist or downtime can be pretty temporary. Ideally they are functioning as a tool for both the player and the GM–for the player, they grant a momentary advantage, a welcome extra die. For the GM, they are part of a conversation with the game table about how far the characters will go, and what complications may persist into the future.