Designer Diary: When the Dark is Gone – Play Test Alpha

Recently I was lucky to run my new game, When the Dark is Gone, with four of the very finest Role-Players I know.


It was a short session but was incredibly good in a number of ways…

– Exceptional Role-Playing from all the Players…check

– Successful Proof of Concept for my two goals….check

– Great feedback which was both ego-boosting and helped clarify the game immensely…check..check…check


We got through character creation fairly smoothly although as the Therapist I ensured it took no longer than an hour.  I decided that the purely reflective nature of the Therapist doesn’t extend to the pre-game prepping and so took an active role in suggesting ideas and twists for the problems and relationships of the party.


We established some clear out of character ground rules.  Firstly a list of subjects to be avoided (one of the players had a phobia we didn’t want to trigger).  Secondly that if anyone felt the game was too intense they could get up and leave the room at any time – but by stating “I need to take a break” it meant that they were going out of character and did not want anyone to follow them IC.  With these house rules in mind the session began.


Very soon I encountered the first major challenge of the Therapist role.


Less is more.


In traditional games the GM monitors pacing and when awkward silences happen it is their job to fill the gap with noise.  In WTDIG the opposite is true.  The Therapist’s role is to say the minimum necessary to help the players draw out the story.  Sometimes this means allowing awkward silences to continue.  When I hit the first awkward silence I made a decision – I would allow the silence to continue for 10 beats longer than I was comfortable with.  This is when the magic happened.  Firstly awkward silences are quite normal in real therapy sessions.  This lent a sense of realism which helped the immersion aspect.  Secondly by allowing an awkward silence to continue, eventually one of the players couldn’t take it any more and started talking.  By this point the pressure had been increased nicely so that whatever they blurted out was usually more interesting and led to better stories and conversations.


Still it was a completely new way of GMing and very difficult. It required me to relearn the norms of GMing for this particular game.  In fact I am going to create a new term to describe this style – it is not GMIng it is GFing – Game Facilitator.


The other big difference I noticed was in attempting to end the game.  Unlike most games with WTDIG there is no planned end-of-level boss, no deliberate climatic scene you are moving towards.  The rhythm of WTDIG is totally different and it is likely you will find no obvious end point. Instead of trying to force a conclusion I simply used time.  I had a player needing to leave at midnight and so I wrapped up at 11.50pm.  In Character I announced that the Therapy session was nearly over and could we just take five minutes to go round the room and have everyone tell the group one thing which they learned today which was helpful.


This last question was to give everyone a small sense of closure and was, I think, vital.


The players enjoyed the short play test and the session was just as emotional and as intense as I hoped.  I felt very invested in their personal stories as the Therapist which was unexpected but awesome.  I got some great feedback which has mostly gone into WTDIG version 2 (already published here) and now have many other play tests being planned to further develop  the game.


There was one aspect of the session which was completely unexpected for me – this is easily a prep-less campaign setting.  All the players felt they could have done more sessions and I could see how the sessions would build up on each other to create more tension and more pressure.  Next time I test this game I’ll be doing it as a 6 session campaign…and if I can run an emotional, immersive yet prep-less campaign I’ll be a very happy Admiral.


Top tip – mood music during character creation was great (Depeche Mode and Portishead) but I made a point of turning it off when we timed in.  This made the contrast with the awkward silences more apparent and was much better for it!

Black Armada century

Yesterday we got our 100th unique visitor. Stranger, please identify yourself, and claim your prize of a brand new sportscar!

…just kidding. But we’re super excited to have so many visitors[*] two weeks after launching, especially since the stats seem to indicate that most of you aren’t our mates from facebook. Thanks for reading, and keep checking back as we’ve got lots more good stuff planned 🙂

[*] That’s assuming google analytics isn’t counting spambots, of course. We’ve had quite a few of those,too.

Game design: Torg

It’s my personal policy not to write reviews about games I haven’t played, and ideally multiple times. So this isn’t a review, because I’ve only read Torg. But it threw up some interesting game design ideas, so I thought I’d write an article off the back of it.

I picked Torg up second hand from Baz King’s big rpg sell-off some time back, along with bunch of other fairly old games that I’m slowly working my way through. The game was published in 1990, in a period when a lot of game designers seem to have been looking to go beyond the model of gaming exemplified by D&D, with innovative game mechanics becoming increasingly commonplace, but the overall paradigm of fairly mechanics-heavy, wargame-with-knobs-on style gaming remaining dominant even in these cutting edge games. You need to bear this in mind when reading about their mechanics, which (I believe!) were extremely innovative at the time, but now look fairly clunky and outdated.

The mechanics

Zero-based die rolling. Torg is the earliest example I’ve come across of a game where the average result on a die roll is zero. This is an important innovation, because it takes quite maths-intensive systems (roll 3d6 and add your skill, or whatnot) and simplifies them by saying “your expected result is equal to your character’s skill level”. By extension, an “easy” task is one which has a difficulty number lower than your skill level, while a “difficult” task is one which has a difficulty number higher than your skill level. Of course, Torg went and ruined it by requiring players to roll a d20 and compare the roll to a look-up table to find out what the actual result was, adding in exploding dice whenever a 10 or 20 was rolled for good measure. In other words, they took a great and simple idea, and made it complex and cumbersome. Only two years later, this model was simplified in FUDGE[*], which does the same thing but much more elegantly.

Cards. I have often commented that it is strange how board game designers avail themselves of a wide range of tools to make their games function well: dice, cards, tokens, and so on, while roleplaying game designers typically restrict themselves to one tool: polyhedral dice. Torg breaks with this trend. It makes use of cards which are said to be designed to inject drama into the game. The players use them to generate a hand of cards which provide one-shot bonuses and special effects usable in combat, enabling them to put extra “oomph” into a given action, or to get GM hints, or even to create sub-plots for their characters on the fly. The self-same cards, if flipped 180 degrees, have GM text which create special effects during conflict, always handing an advantage to the heroes or their opponents, and so creating an ebb and flow in combat. These effects even vary depending on whether you’re in a regular scene or a climactic scene. I won’t go into more detail here, but suffice to say that the cards do two further things. They really are jam-packed with game mechanical power. And, as with much else in Torg, this is their weakness. They go too far with a good idea, and what was an interesting and elegant mechanic becomes cumbersome and complex. Still, it’s interesting to observe that two decades on the idea of cards in games seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance, with games like D&D 4th edition and the latest iteration of Gamma World allegedly (I have yet to sample these games) part of their mechanical set.

Possibilities. Torg uses a variant on what are typically called Fate or Drama points in other games, called “possibilities”. What’s interesting is that Fate points weren’t common in 1990 – indeed, as far as I know only Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying had made use of the Fate Point mechanic at that point. Possibilities in Torg are usable to reroll dice, survive danger or as experience points. They also have a formal role in the metaphysic, such that competing paradigms can be temporarily boosted by their use – so that, for example, my wizard could cast his spells in a world where magic doesn’t exist.

These mechanics are all ideas which, at their core, are very similar to concepts I’ve been toying with as a way of getting a crunchy, simulationist system that nevertheless supports drama and the ability of players to steer events a bit more than, say, D&D, without going the whole hog and turning into, say, Fiasco. It’s interesting to me that they all existed in 1990, albeit in a rather baroque form.

[*] I have no idea if the authors of FUDGE were trying to improve on Torg’s mechanics. I simply observe that the one came very shortly after the other.


I recently ran a game of Dogs in the Vineyard at a roleplaying con. But I wanted to run something a little different. Now, I’ll be honest, the basic game background doesn’t appeal to me all that much. I wanted to see if I could run Dogs but in a non-religious setting, without sacrificing any of the moral judgement that (as I see it) Dogs focuses on. My game went quite well as a game, but utterly failed in that objective. This article discusses why.

I attempted this through a game I dubbed DOGS IN SPAAAAAACE! featuring a small colony on a distant world, struggling to survive a drought that had left them short on supplies. The players were important local people with an interest in keeping the colony from self-destructing, and the stuff that was going on in the colony was twofold:

1. A young woman from the colony, Isabelle, had fallen in love with one of the Wallas, local aliens who sort of looked like wallabies (hence the name), and started having a love affair with him. Another colonist called Peter who wanted to woo her had attacked and killed the Walla in question. In turn, the Walla’s daughter was on the warpath, demanding reparations and a trial by combat for the murderer.

2. The colony was very short on food. Rations had been cut, and particularly severely for the Drones, cloned humans engineers to be stupid but strong and unable to reproduce, and generally treated like cattle by the colony. One of the Drones’ keepers, Ethan, decided that this was unjust and started stealing food for the Drones. In turn, one of the senior keepers had started a petition to have the Drones culled, to help the supplies last longer. It would be only a matter of time before Ethan found out about this and went off on one.

Not this kind of Dog In Space. Image by Bobbie Johnson.

Now, there were several bad decisions in this design process, all of which I was aware of but (mistakenly) thought I could get away with.

– The players all had formal roles in the community (mayor, sheriff, priest, guildmaster). This led to a certain amount of hierarchical behaviour. It wasn’t always problematic, but it led to the sheriff deferring to the mayor on an important decision, which was sub-optimal.

– The colony was in a survival situation. Food was scarce; at the start of the game, a supply ship got destroyed, straining supplies still further. Moreover the Wallas represented a potential existential threat to the community, and I had made them seem overthreatening by referring to early conflicts between humans and Wallas when the colony was formed.

The combination of the two things above led to people acting more as politicians than moral decision-makers. They were far more concerned with the colony’s survival than whether they were doing the right thing. This made for an interesting and tense game, but one that didn’t feel all that much like Dogs game.

There were some good Dogs-esque bits though. The first was that the players spent a good deal of time debating whether it was ok to hand Peter over to the Wallas to face their justice. They knew anything less would enrage the Wallas, but handing him over could lead to unrest in the colony. In the end they copped out and handed the choice to him, but the debate was interesting and in a campaign I could have returned to that theme later on. The second was that there was real concern about the status of the Drones and whether they could indeed be treated like animals. This was somewhat drowned out by political concerns, but again, perhaps I could have returned to it at a future date.

I’d like to try this again at some point, but the concept needs some work.

Rolling the bones… or not.

I have noticed recently a trend for using electronic dice rollers in place of, you know… dice. Now, while I can fully understand the desire to make things simpler in roleplaying games[*], this is not the way, people.


Maybe I’m getting old, but the feel of the dice in my hands, the noise they make when they roll (no, electronically simulated dice-noise does not count), the ability to superstitiously pick specific dice to roll in the hopes they will provide a better result… it’s all part of the experience. And just clicking on a screen – if I wanted to do that I’d be playing World of Warcraft, or Portal 2, or whatever it is people are playing now. Insert recent game here.


Come to that, why are roleplaying game designers creating games that are so complicated and/or require so many dice that people even contemplate using a computer to make the roll? I mean, mentioning no names *cough*Exalted*cough* but I’m pretty sure when you have to pick up more than 10 dice – and individually count out the results on each one – you haven’t written a roleplaying game, you’ve written a computer game. So logically, you need a computer to play it. I hate to undermine my own argument, but while playing a certain game recently I found myself so frustrated with the mechanics, and so embarrassed at how long the other players had to wait for me to count out my dice, that I caved and used the e-roller. Yes, I admit it. But that’s not the worst of it. Because we only had one computer in the room, I ended up getting someone else to click the roll button for me[**]. Think about that for a moment, and tell me it doesn’t make you feel a little sick inside.


So come on, roleplayers. Come on, White Wolf. Let’s drop electronic rollers and the games that make them necessary. That, or give up and play computer games instead.


[*] I’m fairly sure nobody would be stupid enough to design a system for a board game that was complex enough to drive people to this sort of behaviour.

[**] Incidentally, an interesting fact: Bad luck is capable of detecting not only who is rolling the dice, but also who is clicking on the e-roller, and whose skill check they are clicking for. Not that I’m bitter.

The pen is mightier than the sword

I hear a lot of people talking implicitly or explicitly about making their combat sequences like a really great movie. People are increasingly describing camera angles and SFX. But roleplaying is people talking to each other, using words. Which is, you know, more like a book than a movie.

So anyways, as I like to ponder how combat in games might be made cooler, I’m going to spend a little time looking at what’s cool about combat sequences in books. Starting with Joe Abercrombie, who for my money is one of the finest combat describers out there. Take a look at this little sequence from “Best Served Cold”:

“‘Fucking Talins,’ mouthed Shivers under his breath, the ashes of self-pity in his throat suddenly flaring up hot and bloody. It gnawed at him to come this low.Bastards had no use for his boots, just wanted to make themselves feel big. But it’d be a fool’s fight four against one, and with no weapon handy. A fool’s choice to get killed for some old leather, however cold it was.

He crouched down, muttering as he started to pull his boots off . Then his knee caught Red Nose right in his fruits and doubled him over with a breathy sigh. Surprised himself as much as he did them. Maybe going barefoot was more’n his pride would stretch to. He smashed Rat Face on the chin, grabbed him by the front of his coat and rammed him back into one of his mates, then sent them sprawling over together, yelping like cats in a rainstorm.

Shivers dodged the bald bastard’s stick as it came down and shrugged it off his shoulder. The man came stumbling past, off balance, mouth wide open. Shivers planted a punch right into the point of his hanging chin and snapped his head up, then hooked his legs away with one boot, sent him squawking onto his back and followed him down. Shivers’ fist crunched into his face – two, three, four times, and made a right mess of it, spattering blood up to the arm of Shivers’ dirty coat.”

There’s several things in here that are worth noticing. First, there’s absolutely no trading of blows. It’s all totally one-sided. Shivers is winning, so the action focuses on him kicking ass. A lot of games just don’t let that happen – even mooks get a roll to hit and the GM lamely describes them swinging and missing. The closest we get here is Shivers dodging the bald man.

Which brings me to the second point: it’s all from Shivers’ perspective. We hear how he sees the world and what he does. The bald man doesn’t swing his stick at him, Shivers dodges it.

The other thing I like about this sequence is the sheer visceral descriptiveness of it. Clearly there’s limited application of this for RPGs, because how much flowery language are you really going to use, but even so I could see applying a bit more brutal immediacy to my combat description.

Finally, and this is important, it’s really quick. The fight is all but over in one and a half paragraphs. Yet it doesn’t suffer for that, it feels like a real fight. Abercrombie does do longer fight sequences, but it’s striking how even really major fights can often be dealt with in a page or two. Yet many rpg systems grind out over many minutes if not hours.

I may look at some more authors at some point. Please feel free to drop a comment if you have an author you’d like to recommend for really awesome combat sequences.

Designer Diary: When the Dark Is Gone – Concept

If you remember my last Designer Diary Post I set myself two challenges:

Goal number one: create a prep-less game which is emotionally charged, with full immersion and where people are completely invested in their characters.

Goal number two: design a game with no need for a mechanism to resolve conflicts either in or out of character.

I decided that both these goals hung on the right sort of game premise.  So I took an old idea I had been playing with for years and revamped it.

I started with my favourite childhood books.  I loved Narnia, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, Five Children and It by E. Nesbitt and the Box of Delights by John Mansfield.  All involved young children from mundane worlds finding magical people, lands and items and having the most amazing adventures.

But what happened next?

What happens when the dark is gone?

How do you go from ruling as a Queen in Narnia to wartime rations and maths homework?

I imagined a situation where a group of children (the players) enjoyed magical adventures in a mythical land and then understandably failed to readjust to “normal” life.  All the children almost entirely repressed those memories and ended up self-destructing somehow.  All of them ended up in a Group Therapy session together, trying to recover their memories, deal with their psychological disorders and heal themselves and their relationships.

I am a huge believer in strong story scaffolding for prep-less games.  Indeed it is vital and WTDIG is no exception. Story scaffolding happens in two stages firstly the players agree their characters, their relationships (including how they have betrayed and hurt each other) and their psychological problems which have brought them to therapy.  Secondly the players decide on a number of agreed details about the magical land.  These details are the only agreed “true facts” of the game.  Both the character details and magical land details are there to give the players inspiration during the session for creating their repressed memories as they go.

The aim of the game is for the players to resolve their psychological problems and relationships using the memories of the magical land as a tool to help them.  The aim of the game is NOT to write wonderful stories about the magical land (although that may be a happy by-product).

How does this fulfil my goals?

Firstly the session is obviously and sharply focussed on their characters and their feelings. This is a game where creating emotionally charged conversations is the only thing happening in session. In case you didn’t know I run games mostly to find those interesting conversations.

Secondly the setting is a Therapy session.  Verbal conflict is encouraged and mediated by the Therapist (standing in for a GM but a very different role as I’ll explain below), it is resolved in the same way that people resolve real world conflicts in therapy. By talking them out.

Sadly we don’t get to roll dice in arguments with our real life partners 🙁   (Hmmm… hang on a minute?)

If the players disagree about what happened in the magical land…well here is the really clever bit.  They just disagree.  Memory is fallible.  The only truth that matter is your truth and how that helps your healing journey. The players talk through their mismatched memories and use the fact they are mismatched to create more story and more interesting emotional interaction (there was a wonderful example of this in the play test which indeed resulted in a better story and more satisfying experience for the players involved).

There are other advantages to the therapy session conceit in this style of game:

1. awkward silences (which occur more often in prep-less games where people can go dry easily) are perfectly normal for a therapy session and nicely amp up the atmosphere.
2. the Therapist role is a fascinating and easy way to help draw out the story if the players are having trouble.  Rather than acting as a GM and dictating plot etc.  the role of the Therapist is purely to reflect back at the players encouraging them to create everything.  The Therapist asks questions (e.g. Lucy can you tell me how you feel about what Edmund just said?) and ensures that the spotlight is evenly distributed amongst the group. For this reason I think of the role as Game Facilitator rather than Game Master.

Right that was a much longer post.

Next time… results from the Alpha Play Test are in!

[Don’t forget to pick up a free copy of the game from here if you haven’t already.]

Choose your own adventurer

A long time ago (for verily I am a long way behind on my podcasts), Happy Jack’s were discussing the idea of creating pregenerated characters for one-offs but providing a list of disadvantages to choose from for each character. You get a pre-genned character but you can give it a bit of customisation. This got me thinking – why even stop there? You can give each character options for powers, skills, whatever. You could even give them options for backgrounds. Choose between a rival who is trying to kill you, a secret you can never speak of, or a long-lost sibling believed dead. The GM could then hand you an index card with more detail about your chosen option. It would mean the GM couldn’t rely on any individual background detail coming up, but it gives you a bit more ownership over your character. And the unused backgrounds could easily be saved for the next one-off, so you aren’t wasting too much effort.

One-offs can very easily be just railroaded experiences, you’re handed a character and away you go. I’ve got nothing against that – but this seems to be a really simple way to replicate some of the fun of character gen without sucking up so much time that you no longer have time to play the game.

Since drafting this article, I gave the idea a try as part of a one-off Dogs In the Vineyard game I ran for a con. Dogs traditionally lets you gen your own characters, but given that I didn’t have a lot of time, I decided to just create the characters in advance. But I didn’t want people to be stuck with whatever I gave them so each character had two alternate sets of traits, which I chose to illustrate possible backgrounds for those characters. (For example one of the characters could either be the guy who grew up in the big bad city and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, or the guy whose parents expected too much of him and he rebelled and went off to do something different from what they wanted.)

It worked pretty well, and I’d definitely do it again. It hardly added any time to my prep, and equally it added almost no time to the game compared to just handing out fixed characters.

Designer Diary: When the Dark is Gone.

For some weeks I have been writing a new game called “When the Dark is Gone”. It is an ambitious and unconventional approach to gaming (if I do say so myself) but I *am* standing on the shoulders of giants in writing it.

WTDIG is my response to games such as Fiasco, Durance, The Trouble with Rose and others. These are all very good prep-less and GM-less games. They have some huge benefits over a more traditional style of role-playing and the biggest is that in my busy adult life I have less time to prep games. These games offer me the chance to role-play on short notice when I haven’t have time to prep.


I also find the GM-less style both challenging and intriguing. Once you have overcome the shock of shared creation, there are many benefits and the stories that emerge are often more interesting due to the greater creativity resource. I have enjoyed them all a great deal, but in all I have found I am missing something.

What am I missing?…a good cry.

What I mean is that whilst these games have been fun and entertaining stories were told – none of them touched me emotionally. There was little to no character investment and indeed this investment is actively discouraged in most cases.

First I thought that emotional role-playing wasn’t possible in a prep-less setting. Perhaps genuinely touching games, games which can make you cry, can only happen with prep.

Well – I love a challenge 🙂

Goal number one: create a prep-less game which is emotionally charged, with full immersion and where people are completely invested in their characters.

But that wasn’t enough for me. I’d been watching with interest how people were designing ways of determining Out Of Character conflicts or assigning elements of story control to different people at different times. But I was looking for a fully immersive character experience; any pause to make an OOC comment (even discussing the direction of a scene) would break what I was looking for.

So, how do you resolve conflicting views about where the story goes in a game where no-one breaks character?…The secret…you don’t.

Goal number two: design a game where there is no need for a mechanism to resolve conflicts either in or out of character.

Stay tuned for my solution…

[The beta version of the game is released here but I’ll have some more Designer Diaries going up to document my design process in the coming weeks. There will be lots more play testing and refining happening before I release the final version.

If you want to play test it drop me a line here i’d love to hear from you.]


Welcome to Black Armada

Black Armada is a website about roleplaying and board gaming run by Rabalias and Frax. Between us we have over 50 years’ experience of playing and GMing. That means we really like it, and we really like talking about it too.

You’ll find gaming tips, discussion articles, reviews and free games and game modules here, together with a significant quantity of random game-related bibble. We welcome comment and discussion so please feel free to contribute.

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