House on the Border: Values

This is part of a designer diary series for the game House on the Border. The previous article (also the first) can be found here.


At the start of the game, you collectively decide on what Values the house considers to be important. You could express these as a word or a phrase. Honesty could be a value, or My Word Is My Bond.

Values could include an important principle (Justice, Honour, Honesty, Valour), a goal (Bring about the reign of the true gods, Become the largest trading empire in the galaxy, Get out of this rotten neighbourhood), a belief (Arthur is the one true king, Western vales are superior/inferior, You can’t trust an elf/dwarf), and more besides. Think about what you want your House to be like, but also remember that whatever you choose, the MC will focus her energies on challenging those values. If you don’t want the game to focus on something, don’t pick it as a Value.

It is vitally important that you all understand broadly what is meant by the Values you have chosen. This is not to say that there couldn’t be disagreements in application, but you must be clear on what the core of the Value is. For example, the Value of Justice could be referring to placing a high importance on compliance with the law; could represent a commitment to fairness; or might be more about wanting to see everyone get their just desserts. You may well end up disagreeing over whether a given person deserves their fate, but you must at least agree on whether that question is covered by the Value of Justice.

Having decided the House’s Values, every player gives their character a rating from -2 to +2 in that Value, and the House as a whole gets a rating equal to the combined total of the characters’ ratings (capped at -2 or +2).

Every Value also has an opposing Value. You must also collectively decide on a name for this Value, and ensure you are clear on what it means. The rating for this value is the same as its opposite, but with the sign reversed, e.g. +2 Honesty could become -2 Deceitful.

In addition, any character may have personal Values that do not relate to the House at all. If so, they should say what they are now and hold a discussion with the group to agree on a name for them and establish what they mean, creating an opposite at the same time. The player may set their Value anywhere between +2 and -2 just like a House Value, and any other player may decide to give their character the same Value if they wish.

At any time the group may decide to add a new value to the House’s Values, which may include adding a Value that had previously been personal to one or more characters. If so, the House and anyone who didn’t previously had that Value gain it and its opposite at +0.

House on the Border


You play members of a house or household, large or small, struggling to survive and prosper close to the border of an unpredictable and sometimes hostile area. Perhaps you are a noble house on the border between civilisation and savage wilderness; maybe you are a merchant house plying your trade between galactic empires; or perhaps you are the family who live at the big house on the edge of a rough neighbourhood, trying to figure out how you can afford that holiday in Spain and still pay the phone bill.

The game is designed to tell stories about the House and the individuals in it, focusing on the interplay between the needs of the group and the desires of the people that make it up. You’ll play characters with strong personalities and driving goals, not all of which will be compatible with the survival and prosperity of the House.

The rules system for House on the Border will be based on the Apocalypse World engine.

The House and the Border

At the start of the game, you collectively decide what kind of House the game will focus on, and what the nature of the border is. The House could be a literal building, a family or clan, a business house or something else entirely. As for the border, it could be a simple spatial border between kingdoms or a frontier between a civilised area and an untamed space. But equally it could be something different: a border in time, perhaps, such as a political or cultural revolution; or an ephemeral border between competing political or religious interests. It needn’t be grand, but could be something like an anarchic neighbourhood on the wrong side of the tracks or a lawless wilderness. Agree on this before you start to create characters.

What matters to your House?

Your House will have a bunch of things that are important to it. These are divided into two types: values and resources. Values are things that matter to the House, such as Honour or Victory. Resources are things the House needs to survive and/or prosper, such as Money or Defences.

In future installments, I’ll develop how these work.

Designer Diary: Down the Rabbit Hole

So, Frax and I are working on a new game. We want to create a game about characters who cross over from the mundane world into a strange world of gods and faeries, or secret masters and conspiracies, or maybe magi and vampires… you get the idea. Universes like Neverwhere, Sandman, or the World of Darkness, Nobilis, Immortal, the X Files, all fit into this broad category.

But we’ve had some bad experiences with games like that. Playing those sorts of games, we’ve often found we were stumbling around, not understanding how the world worked, and outmatched and manipulated by NPCs with vast powers and vaster influence. Running them, we found that we would be required to invest hours of time creating the giant conspiracy or sprawling nether world, to make it coherent and consistent and to be always on top of the complicated, interrelated facts when the players began poking around at the tapestry we had woven. Of course, the two feed each other: all that effort means the game has to be about what we the GM have created, not about the players.

We want a game that delivers the conspiracy game experience: mystery, confusion, complicated weird shit – while avoiding these pitfalls. Beyond that, we want a game that focuses on the characters and their personal journeys from naive and sceptical ingenue to being a part of the world beyond the veil, and even masters of it.

So this is the first in a series of designer diaries about the game. It isn’t a finished product – we’re designing it as we go. Some bits remain to be defined, and some bits will probably change. So without further ado…

Aim of design: To create a game in which ordinary people go down the rabbit hole into a mysterious world to which they are naïve and vulnerable, without (a) the players feeling like mere pawns, (b) a huge burden on the GM to create and drip feed the secret world to the players, and with (c) a focus on character development and how the characters come to terms with the mysterious world. The system will support these design aims.

From novice to master

The players move through a series of stages akin to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). They begin with sceptical disbelief and slowly move towards integrating themselves into the mysterious world and becoming movers and shakers in that world. (Perhaps there will be an option to return to the normal world instead – but this would retire your character.)

The players are incentivised to move through each stage because every time they move through a stage they gain new supernatural powers and/or increase the strength of their existing powers. (They start the game with little or no powers.)

The players are incentivised not to move through each stage too quickly because every time they reach a new stage they refresh certain energy meter(s) (health, magical power, etc) which are eroded in play. Optimal play involves wearing down your meter(s) in scenes and then transitioning to a new stage when you are at your weakest.

Note: we might need a further brake on progression so players who transition very quickly don’t get too far ahead of the pack. Or maybe we do not need this.

Designer Diary – Sacrifice and Consequences

I’m currently finishing off incorporating the feedback from the Disaster Strikes! playtest, so I can release a full draft on the website. Thanks to comments from Blackrat, I have encountered a problem with my design. It’s not a massive one, but it does need solving before the game can go live.

In Disaster Strikes!, you use playing cards in a similar way to how you would use dice in a standard roll+stat>difficulty game. However, because you’re using cards there’s a few features that you don’t get with dice. Here’s the key ones for the problem at hand:
– You can pick from multiple cards in your hand rather than just getting one result
– The face cards do something special; namely, you can play them on top of another card to provide a bonus
– But if you do play a face card, you get negative consequences determined by the GM
– The suit of the card you play suggests a particular mode of action (planning, execution, inspiration or sacrifice), and you get a bonus if you can describe an action that fits that mode of action
– If you play a sacrifice (spades) card then you get a negative consequence determined by the GM

Here’s the problem. To get the bonus for a sacrifice card, you have to describe an action that costs you. But you are also supposed to get a negative consequence determined by the GM. That’s two negative consequences! Rather a lot for one card.

Now, I could just say that the consequence narrated by the player to get their bonus is instead of the consequence determined by the GM. But that duplicates another mechanic, which is that if you play a face card in your character’s personal trump suit, you get to decide the consequences, instead of the GM. With your trump suit you can choose a positive consequence instead of a negative consequence, so they are different. But it feels like a spades card should  be more like a non-trump face card. It should hurt to get one.

Alternatively, I could say that you get the bonus for appropriate description whenever you play a spades card, without needing to describe anything – instead it’s a trade-off for the GM-determined consequence.

Am I making too much of this? Anyone have any other ideas about how to fixenate it?

Disaster Strikes!: Call for playtesters

If you’ve been following Black Armada for a while you’ll know I’ve been working on a game called Disaster Strikes!

DS! is a game about a major disaster, like an earthquake, terrorist attack or zombie plague outbreak, and the actions of ordinary heroes who fight to save innocent lives in the face of it. It’s designed to simulate disaster movies like the Towering Inferno, Volcano! and Aliens. (In this context, Aliens is a disaster movie, because it’s about an uncontrollable threat which our heroes can only desperately try to contain or flee from.)

The game can be played light-hearted and silly (think Shaun of the Dead) or tense and serious (The Poseidon Adventure, maybe.) Either way, it’s a fast-paced and deadly game where there is a real possibility of failure. The game is designed to tolerate player character death – even when you die, there’s stuff for you to do.

The game is designed to be played as a one-shot, of around four hours in length. It works with 2-6 people, but is best with 4.

The game is now ready for beta playtesting. I’ve already playtested it in a safe environment, with considerable success. But no game should be published without first being tested by someone other than the designer. So this is a call for playtesters. If you’d like to take part, please drop me a line at rabalias (at) vapourspace dot net, or leave a comment here, and I will send you a playtest pack.

Designer Diary: Quick Draw

I ran Disaster Strikes! at Furnace last weekend, and it was pretty successful. I used a new mechanic for the first time – the disaster pool. But before I can explain how that went, I need to talk about Quick Draw, the conflict resolution system I’ve been using for DS!

We at Black Armada have been planning to release a “generic” conflict resolution system which we can use with our games, and QD is our first attempt at this. It’s still somewhat in development, but I’ve been testing it with DS! because it seems to fit the game pretty well.

QD works in a similar way to many conflict resolution systems in that you say what you’re trying to achieve, identify the stakes of the conflict (i.e. what happens when you win, what happens if you lose), work out which of your character’s stats apply and then set a difficulty number. In most games you’d then go to the dice, but as the name implies, QD uses cards instead.

The player who is taking the action draws 3 cards, and the GM (so far it’s only been used with games that have a GM) draws 1 card. The player reveals his best card and adds it to whatever stats are in use, while the GM reveals her card and adds it to the difficulty number. High number wins, player wins ties.

What makes the system interesting is how face cards are handled. Forgetting Aces for the moment (Aces are special), face cards count as 5-point cards for purposes of working out the results of a draw. However, face cards can be played after other cards have been revealed as described above, to add a +5 bonus to the player’s side. Naturally, having a face card dramatically increases your chance of success.

However, in addition, playing a face card generates a consequence of some kind. The consequence is usually decided by the GM, and is generally something that the character on the receiving end will not like. It’s against the rules to overturn the outcome of the card draw (i.e. the stakes as agreed above), so consequences tend to mean a new event of some kind, which might or might not be related to the current action. Kind of like Leverage, this means that conflicts often generate spiralling sets of complications.

For DS! this is a nice property for a system to have, because it reinforces the sense that the disaster is raging out of control. The GM can use complications to activate aspects of the disaster in an unpredictable way, so that a seemingly straightforward challenge can turn into a cascade of pain. The Furnace session saw the protagonists hurdling rivers of fire only to be struck by an out-of-control rollercoaster train with a zombie on it, carried by the momentum to the ticket stands where a horde of zombies began pouring through the turnstiles, and so on.

The downside, though, is that it’s a lot of work for the GM to come up with consequences. When the players are firing on all cylinders as well, this isn’t too bad – the GM can take suggestions and avoid running out of ideas. But there can be fairly long moments where the GM is all “what the heck do I do now?”. This is especially a problem when multiple consequences come up in a single turn. Which happens more than you might think.

I haven’t yet figured out quite how to get around this problem. Maybe it isn’t a problem at all – it generates creative challenges for the group, and I don’t think I’ve ever found it literally impossible to come up with something. But I’m wondering if there’s a way to avoid breaking the action while the GM thinks of a consequence.

Next up: suits, player-generated conequences, and the disaster pool.

Bite Me! – A game of Werewolf Pack Dynamics

[Taken largely from a G+ post I made a couple of weeks ago]

 I love Werewolves.

There, I said it.

I love the inner struggle of humanity against feral instinct but most of all I love the idea that Werewolves don’t have to do it alone.  They have family.  They have Pack.

Sadly, in all the years I have been role-playing, I have never played in a werewolf game.

The White Wolf systems have tended to leave me underwhelmed.  Not least because I have found that the system’s complexity gets in the way of the personal horror and community aspects of the werewolf myth that I find so compelling. In recent years my favourite treatments of the Werewolf mythology have been “Being Human” and Kelley Armstrong’s “Women of the Otherworld” series.

I have been thinking more and more that when (not if) I run a werewolf campaign it will follow much of the pack model established in Women of the Otherworld. To me the real crux of a Werewolf game should be how all the action and plot are viewed through the lens of the relationships between the Pack members and the group culture of the Pack.

 I want to build in mechanics for how loyal your character feels towards the Alpha and the Pack which will, in turn, get you some mechanical benefits but also creates plenty of space for emotional interaction and interesting conversations.

As I said before the action of the game should viewed through the lens of your relationships and the Pack.  So the example I gave to a friend recently was as follows:

Scenario: The Pack Alpha gets kidnapped.

We play through planning and executing the plan to get the Alpha back. But this should played out with plenty of intra-Pack conversations and dialogue and space for emotional interaction around the following:

a) how the Pack deals with the loss of their leader and driving force – do they fracture with no-one taking control, does another character rise up to take up the reigns of leadership, how do the pack respond to this?  Are the Pack grateful that someone has filled the vacuum or do they resist the new leadership?

b) personal distress of the characters – who feels guilty that the kidnap resulted from their failing to protect the Alpha?;

c) if the Alpha is recovered does the temporary leader want to relinquish control – does the Pack view the Alpha differently
because they were “not strong enough” to resist capture?; and

d) how will the Pack process what happened.  Will they emerge stronger as a group? Will they seek revenge?

The idea that when stuff happens you aren’t just thinking about “how do we solve the plot problem of recovering the Alpha?”, but also exploring what this means for you and your Pack.

I’d almost certainly employ Vincent Baker ‘s amazing “ask lots of questions” technique from Apocalypse World, in drawing out this aspect more heavily.

This is a further development of the way in which I run Amber Diceless – where the theme is again Family.  Everything is viewed through the lens of Family.  In Amber the family might do horrible things to each other (as per the books) but they can’t shake the fact they share a heritage and it just keeps pulling them back into each others lives.

As an aside one of things which used to fascinate me about Jerry Springer and related TV shows was the way in which people couldn’t just leave each other alone and move on with their lives.  Despite some of the terrible car crash relationships some people just didn’t seem to be able to pull themselves out of the destructive spiral they were in together and I was always intrigued as to why. Maybe I am just writing games to answer that question?

Designer Diary: Disaster Strikes! : The Doomsayer

My personal favourite mechanic from working on Disaster Strikes! is the Doomsayer, aka the Cassandra. They’re there in every disaster movie[*]. The person who repeatedly warns that everything is about to go belly up, only to be ignored until it is far too late. Charlton Heston in The Towering Inferno, Ripley in Aliens, Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak!.

DS! turns this into part of the game rules. One person has the job of being the predictor of the doom to come.

Special: Prediction. During the first Act, your protagonist makes dire predictions which will come true, but which everyone else will ignore. At any time during the first Act you may make an In Character statement pointing out a risk, a weak spot or possible threat. Your statement is true. In this way you can help foreshadow the threat and what will happen in the second and third Acts. Don’t forget to stay consistent with what’s already agreed – no fair turning the volcano into a flood, or whatever. And of course, you must not use this ability to weaken the threat – your role is to enhance it.

Note: during the first Act, nobody except the person with the above special is permitted to attend to the threat. They either fail to notice it, ignore it, discount it as not as bad as it seems, or focus on other priorities. Meanwhile the nature of the disaster will be such that if the Doomsayer tries to stop it by themselves they will certainly fail. On the plus side, the disaster is only embryonic and certainly not out-of-control at this point.

Meanwhile the DM and the players have a perfect view of what is coming – just as they would in a disaster movie. The Doomsayer is handing opportunities to the DM for dramatic situations in later Acts, and to the player to figure out how they might deal with them. Not to mention getting to take part in the creative process like no other player – apart from the DM.

In DS!, Act I is for introducing the setting, the characters and their relationships, and foreshadowing the disaster. The doomsayer plays an important role in that. The remaining specials are chiefly concerned with Act II – when the threat kicks off in earnest. More on this soon.

[*] Possible hyperbole alert. I haven’t watched all or even most disaster movies. Yet.

Designer Diary: Disaster Strikes! …and you’re Dead.

I’m currently working on a disaster movie game called Disaster Strikes!, aimed at simulating the feel of classic movies like The Towering Inferno, Volcano! and many others. The basic setup is, a small group of competent, brave and selfless individuals find themselves caught up in a major disaster, be it an earthquake, a virus outbreak or an alien attack. They must somehow escape or overcome the threat, while saving loved ones and bystanders from certain death. It’s a no-prep game that will give you the structure and tools to create an action-packed disaster in a few hours.

I’ve run a couple of playtests and will report on them soon. But for this article, I’d like to share with you a mechanic I created for the game which has really shown its worth.

See, the thing about a disaster movie is that it comes with a high mortality rate. Sure, the heroes don’t usually die, but they can do. And part of what has made the game exciting in playtests has been the uncertainty over whether the players will survive or not, and the tension created by putting yourself in harms way in order to save the lives of others. The trouble is, if you die mid-way through that kinda sucks. Fortunately I have a solution.

Special: Dead. You are dead. Bad luck! But on the plus side, once per game, at any time between now and the end of the game you can trigger a flashback scene. You can use this scene to shine a light on your character and their relationships. However, in addition, you can use this scene to give another character an item, advice, or some other resource, and they get that to use in the game, right now.

The Dead special went down very well in playtesting. It was used to pull surviving character’s fat out of the fire, proving crucial to the successful defeating of the threat in one session. As well as giving the dead player something to do, it gives them a reason to continue to pay attention to the game rather than, say, going off and playing computer games in the corner. I’m going to want to playtest it some more, as it’s obviously potentially very powerful (and in some circumstances you may be better off dead than alive) but I’ve been really pleased with it so far.

Designer Diary: House of Ill Repute

So, I’ve been working on a Fiasco playset called House of Ill Repute. It’s a Westminster politics-based game in the mold of “The thick of it”, “House of Cards” and (if you’re feeling a bit more gentle) “Yes, Minister”.

For me, Fiasco and politics go together like, I dunno, a mars bar and batter. Sure, it’s an unusual combination, strange even – but soooo delicious. Shows like “The thick of it” give a good idea of how out-of-control politicians can create explosive drama just as much as more traditional Fiasco settings.

If you’ve played Fiasco you’ll be aware that each game starts by generating a bunch of plot elements rolled on a random table: Relationships between pairs of player characters[*], locations, objects and needs. So naturally I spent quite a bit of time creating the tables. But quite early on I realised that the standard set just weren’t going to cut it.

Image by Elessar91

Specifically, politics is event-driven. To create a really exciting political game you need some awe-inspiring political events that will drive the characters into action. The scandals, the diplomatic disasters, international crises, and so forth. I had to have an events table right there at setup.

Fortunately for me, Westminster politics also features a fairly limited set of locations. Whitehall, Parliament, Fleet Street (no longer exists as the hub of press power, but meh – it obviously does in roleplaying games). There’s doubtless going to be meetups in London restaurants, on the river banks or whatever, but the locations just aren’t as important in this setting.

Therefore, the locations table was dumped, and replaced with the events table. Now all I had to do was come up with six sets of six interesting political events. Not a problem! If anything, the issue is to keep the numbers down, and keep them general enough that there’s still room for creativity around them.

The events table contains national celebrations like a royal wedding, international disasters like an earthquake in China, domestic headline makers like Snowmaggedon, and political bread and butter like Prime Minister’s Questions.