Welcome to Black Armada

Black Armada Games is run by Joshua Fox and Becky Annison. We create roleplaying games that unlock the creativity of your group, bring your favourite genres to life and give you feelings in your heart. We lovingly craft our games to provide memorable experiences, and work with awesome artists and printers to create beautiful physical books. You can find all our games in our store or, if you really love our stuff, back our Patreon to get regular games from us.

How long does it take to make an RPG?

Over the last couple of years I have been keeping a regular record of the time I spend on RPG design projects – especially the larger ones. During this time I’ve taken two big projects to conclusion: Flotsam – Adrift Amongst the Stars and Last Fleet.

I’ve combined the data from these two to make a rough chart of how I spend time on a big RPG project. Specifically, most of the post-Kickstarter campaign data (layout, art management, printing, shipping) comes from Flotsam while the rest comes from Last Fleet. This is because I only started keeping records partway through Flotsam’s lifecycle, while one impact of the current pandemic has been that my Last Fleet record keeping fell apart post-Kickstarter – though anecdotally it looks pretty similar to Flotsam so I feel comfortable combining the two.

The data isn’t perfect. Realistically I sometimes lost track of time and wrote down a best guess on how long I’d spent working on a given occasion. I also likely failed to catch some smaller bits of working time.

With the above caveats in mind, I estimate that one of these projects takes about 300 hours from start to finish. That’s just my time – not the wider project contributors (stretch goal writers, editors, artists etc). That’s how long it takes me; I would think every designer is different. Others may do more or less playtesting, take more or less time iterating their design ideas, or do more or less marketing work. So this is just one example, but hopefully it gives some sense of how long it might take you, dear reader.

Pie chart shows data as follows.
- Design 34.5%
- Playtest 17.2%
- Art 8.6%
Layout 3.4%
Editing 10.3%
Kickstarter 5.2%
Publicity 13.8%
Printing 1.7%
Shipping 1.7%
Admin 3.4%

As you can see from the chart (blue segments), I spend about half of my time on design (34.5%) and playtesting (17.2%) combined. That encompasses all the thinking and writing that goes into creating the draft game text, all the planning for the playtests and the actual time spent in playtest sessions. It’s likely more of an underestimate than the other segments, because who can really quantify time spent thinking – I do a good chunk of that in between formal design sessions.

The next biggest chunk, in red, is publicity (13.8%). That includes time spent on interviews and the like, but excludes time spent refreshing Twitter during the Kickstarter campaign. This is because I figure the latter is something I would have done anyway. I find Kickstarter campaigns very stressful. Perhaps in theory I should attempt to account for that stress and the time it eats up, I don’t know. However part of the reason for doing this accounting is to consider how much I might reasonably charge someone else to run their campaign, so it’s useful to know the actual hours spent working as opposed to time wasted because of the psychological impact of crowdfunding.

I’ve separately accounted for time spent setting up the Kickstarter page (in purple), doing Kickstarter updates and suchlike, which you could consider publicity but are often actually taken up with more admin type tasks. At any rate – quite a small category (5.2%), probably because it’s mostly writing down stuff I’ve already worked out elsewhere and communicating it to backers.

After that, in orange, you have editing (10.3%) and layout (3.4%). The editing time is huge! To some extent the figure is arbitrary, because design work itself includes a great deal of editing. I have counted the time I spent re-reading the text after I had notionally settled on a final ruleset, polishing it, and also time I spent reading my copy editor’s comments and implementing them. (Aside: that’s how long it took me as someone very close to the text: imagine how long it takes a copy editor who has never even read your text before. Pay your copy editors well, folks!) Layout was mostly done by my layout artist but there was a bit of review, comment and editing to make stuff fit within a particular page template.

Art (grey) also took up a surprisingly large amount of time (8.6%). This covers generating the ideas for the illustrations, liaising with the artist(s), and reviewing their work and providing comments. Given that Flotsam has about 25 pieces of art in it, that’s over an hour per piece, which seems like a lot – I guess quite a bit of it just thinking.

In the “surprisingly low” category, in green, is printing (1.7%) , shipping (1.7%) and admin (3.4%). This covers tasks like setting up all my products on Backerkit, liaising with the printer and warehouse, fixing errors, dealing with customs, etc. I think this excludes post-Backerkit admin, such as setting up the new product on itch, Drivethru and our website, and handling orders. So in that sense, it’s probably an underestimate over and above the caveats mentioned further up. And since neither project was my first rodeo, there’s an element of familiarity with the admin systems that might take a newbie publisher longer to get to grips with (not least because you can copy data over from previous projects in Backerkit).

One bit of “lessons learned” from this is that I need to create “how to” guides for some of the things that I do as part of a Kickstarter project. For example, I wasted a small but nonzero amount of time figuring out how to complete customs forms for Last Fleet that I had done for previous projects but forgotten. Now I have a customs template of my own to make the process easier. It’s well worth your time to systematise this stuff if you’re planning to do multiple projects, as there are all sorts of fiddly details that can be hard to remember (and indeed, if you forget them, can cause problems).

Anyway, I did this analysis for my own benefit but hopefully someone somewhere might find it helpful.

News from Black Armada

We’re picking up our tools again after a bit of a Covid-induced hiatus, and there’s a few things we wanted to let you know about.

1. We published a new resource on the website, titled making your game fun for everyone. It’s a primer on tools to help focus your game on the things your group enjoys, covering everything from CATS, the same page tool and lines and veils, through the X Card and Script Change, through to feedback and the debrief. It covers a lot of stuff that is often included under the rubric of “safety”, but we’ve tried to take a wider perspective on what these tools can be used for, as well as some ideas of our own.

2. Last Fleet is available for pre-order! If you missed it on Kickstarter, it’s a PBTA game about the last of humanity fleeing across space from the alien Corax. You play brave pilots, officers, politicians and journalists struggling to fend off enemy attacks, alien infiltrators, discord on the fleet and the growing pressure on themselves. Basically if you liked Battlestar Galactica, you might like this. Link here: https://lastfleet.backerkit.com/hosted_preorders

3. Our patreon is up and running again!

  • Our newest game is HISTORY DIG LIVE!, a tribute to the UK tv show Time Team, where you play TV archaeologists and (in flashbacks) the historical characters whose lives they are digging up.
  • $3 gets you access to the game, as well as our previous one The Great British Snake Off, where you play contestants on the reptile kingdom’s premier baking show. Win on technique or by trickery!
  • We’ve got a whole bunch of excellent games coming up too, from the GMless mystery game Elementary, through the solo journaling card game Wreck This Deck, and more. Come and join us!

Safety Marks

In the course of writing, playtesting and now publishing Bite Marks I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about safety tools. The conversation has expanded so much since I started role-playing 29 years ago and I love how people are thinking about play culture, baking safety into mechanical design and normalising the use of safety tools and putting more conscious effort into looking out for each other. The idea that we are still only at the start of this journey is really exciting to me – I am eagerly looking forward to the next iteration of safety tools.

Just recently I was in the process of prepping a game of Bite Marks when I realised that in addition to all the stuff written in the book about safety there is something else I do without realising it – I figured I’d write a post about that.

Like many people I use the three most comment safety tools in my games and my play. The first thing you do in Bite Marks (and all my games) is create a list of banned items via anonymous channels as necessary. This is like an anonymous version of Lines and Veils as created by Ron Edwards. I also encourage the use of the X-card by John Stavropolous and Script Change by Beau Sheldon.

But I also consider what aspects of the specific game I’m playing are particularly safety relevant and then discuss them up front. I point them out with a big red hand. For Bite Marks there are three particular aspects of the game and system which may cause tension for players. Before a game I explain those aspects in more detail and talk through the ways in which those elements will work and the ways in which they will NOT work. Below is a blow by blow account of how I do that for Bite Marks and the three elements I highlight.

Bite Marks Example:

Player v Player

“Bite Marks has a player v. player element but not in the sense that the players will be trying to back stab each other. Player v. player conjures up a lot of different images – most of which probably don’t quite fit the Bite Marks setting. In Bite Marks, players can dominate or scrap with each other, they can force each other to reveal their feelings… but they are all on the same team. They are working to the same goal, they don’t have secret agendas that have the players competing with each other. This means the game has all the trappings of player v. player but the game play is really different.”

I always point this out so that the players don’t just see all the Moves they can use on each other and assume this is a game about screwing each other over.

Domination

“In Bite Marks there is a Move called Dominate. This *can* in some circumstances allow one player character to give orders to and mentally dominate another player character into taking an action they do not want to take. That is deliberate because it is about struggling with your werewolf nature, and your werewolf nature wants to take orders from those with a higher status. You might feel uncomfortable about being forced to take an action you don’t want to take – that is cool, your character probably feels the same way so channel it into playing them.

The move reflects how you are conditioned to obey, it isn’t about someone changing how you think and feel about the act.

This means that if someone makes a successful dominate move on you, then, when you have completed the thing you were dominated to do you are at liberty to row with them about it, blame them and have it change how you see them or even whether you will ever trust them again. In fact, it is encouraged that you do just that!”

Dominate takes away some player and some character agency and it is definitely going to lead to uncomfortable situations. So, by stating this all clearly up front (instead of finding out halfway through a session) people can choose how they want to engage with it; or whether this is not a game they want to play at all before the session starts!

Give In to the Wolf

“In Bite Marks there is a move called “Give In to the Wolf”. This Move gives you a big boost to your powers but if you roll a fail the MC will take over your character. This move takes away player and character agency completely. The Wolf is out of control and they are going to do something bad that your character will take the fall for. You can choose whether or not to use the Move, in fact if you don’t want to use the Move because you are scared of losing control I’d suggest playing into it and making it a feature of your character!

Dominate and Give into the Wolf are STILL subject to all the other safety rules, you can’t use it in relation to material which is Banned, people can and should use the X-card and Script Change tools as they wish to (and there is an additional rule in the game text that you can never use these Moves to get around consent in sexual situations – it just doesn’t work).”

I explain these issues at the start of any game (whether in person or ahead of time in an email or similar. A big part of the reason I’ve written this blog post is so that you can cut and paste this wording and use it in your own Bite Marks pre-session prep if you like.

Identifying which parts of a game world, or system might need some extra explanation and framing is a judgment call. I would say that mechanics touching on consent, anything which is a bit surprising or deals with vulnerability and oppression are good places to look for mechanics and background that you need to put front and centre in this way. Games which have themes of e.g.: horror, sex and/or oppression as a core part of their setting are also good candidates for a pre-game explanation. In a Monsterhearts game I might talk about Darkest Self and ‘Turn Someone On’ and Sex Moves, explaining in more detail how they will work, how they will be framed in the game and how to lean into playing them. In any Lovecraftian game I’ll give a briefing on racism and portrayals of mental health. Don’t forget that a lot of historical-style games will come with various forms of oppression baked into the setting which privileged players and groups won’t immediately recognise.

In a convention or game pitching situation you won’t have a lot of time to get into details – so it is worth highlighting the presence of anything safety relevant and then as soon as you have a settled player group you can do a rundown of the safety tools you want to use and go into any extra detail you need to mention. Part of your explanation will also depend on who you are playing with and how well you know them. Personally I’ll skip some bits of the briefing for people who have played Bite Marks before and are familiar with my three ‘red hand topics’ – but I will always stress and restate what safety tools we are using. I would more explicit running Bite Marks at the convention with a table of strangers especially if I know some of them have played Vampire the Masquerade which has a different way of using a dominate-like power.

Ultimately this is all about making sure that everyone is on the same page with the game and giving people the option to leave before the game starts if they don’t want to play with those mechanics or background.

In terms of other safety tools I think that tabletop RPGs could learn a great deal from LARP in how we approach debriefing after the end of a session or campaign and this resource compiled by Kienna Shaw and Lauren Bryant-Monk is also a fantastic compendium of safety techniques and goes into much more detail and explanation of the ones I’ve mention above.

If you are a UK lawyer one early principle you learn is called Denning’s Red Hand Rule. This rule states that the more unusual a contract clause is the more attention you need to bring to it. Lord Denning suggested in a judgment that some clauses might only be valid if they were written in red ink with a red hand pointing to them. I apply this principle to the games I run. What mechanics, what themes should be written in red in with a red hand pointing to them. Set expectations early, alongside your preferred safety tools. As a GM you will (probably) have a lot more information about a game than the players. So it is your job to identify land mines before people step on them and then point them out… with a red hand.

This blog post is funded by the Black Armada Patreon! Thank you so much crewmates 🙂

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How does system matter? (part 2: house rules, mods and hacks)

This is the second in a series of articles. In the first I talked about designer intent, and mechanical procedures.

As discussed in the previous article, designer intent is important but only so far as it is successfully communicated and/or implemented through the game text. We’ve talked about how the procedures of play can shape what the game is like: now let’s talk about what happens when you modify those rules through house rules or hacking.

First up, what’s the difference between house rules and hacks? I think it’s a difference of scope and formality, and can reasonably be said to exist on a sliding scale. A house rule is generally a focused change to the rules given in the official game, a hack is a much broader set of changes which, taken far enough, can become a completely new game. It’s a slightly arbitrary distinction but when you’re far enough apart on that spectrum, the distinction will matter, as we’ll see.

So starting with house rules: small, focused changes to the rules. In my experience these tend to come about when someone is playing a game, and a situation comes up that they want to handle by something other than fiat, but the official rules don’t give a mechanistic way of doing that. I emphasise mechanistic, because as we’ll see later, plenty of games give you tips or guidelines for making decisions in spaces that aren’t covered by the mechanical procedures of the game. But usually when a house rule comes about, it’s because the group wants something harder edged, that defines something you definitely can or can’t do, or that involves picking up the dice.

So we’re talking about discrete, focused, mechanical changes. They are the same as what I call “procedures”, meaning they are pretty much fixed in their operation: give them input A, they’ll give you output B (or perhaps randomly either output B or C, say). There will be interpretation about when something in the game has triggered input A, and how output B or C manifests, no doubt, but still – a fairly rigid mechanism that compels B/C to happen when A happens. And like other procedures, that means they force the game into a particular shape.

It’s useful to now contemplate the designer’s intentions again. The designer, we may hope and assume, has created a functioning whole: a collection of rules that work effectively to generate the type or types of play that the designer envisages[*]. Your intervention is hopefully giving you the type of play that you wanted, but it might push the game outside of its original parameters and into an entirely different play space. Or! It might not. Maybe your new rule is on just the same page as the designer, and it’s more of an incidental thing that they happened never to include such a rule – perhaps they didn’t have the space, or never thought of it.

Point is, by introducing a new rule, you’re changing the system. Maybe only a little bit, or maybe it’s more significant than that, either because it has a big impact on play, or because it interacts with other mechanical parts of the existing rules in unexpected ways. That’s a good thing! You wanted to change how the game worked, and that’s what you did. Just, it’s important to understand that you’re now playing a new game, and because system matters, that might make a big difference to the experience you have at the table.

An example may be useful. I was chatting to Ben Riggs on his podcast Plot Points the other day, and mid-way through a conversation about why Last Fleet isn’t a D&D hack, we came to an idea that you could allow characters in D&D to heal some hit points when they have an emotionally meaningful conversation. Ben was quite taken with this idea, and hopefully will try it out.

Here’s what I think will happen when he does: the players will start talking to each other about stuff that they never previously bothered to talk about, or at any rate will do so more frequently than they did before. Talking about feelings. Talking about things that give us feelings – happy or sad events, hopes or dreams, worries or fears.

More than that, if they’re clever they’ll start to set up stuff that they could talk about at some future juncture. Like, if you’re using the official D&D rules, the only incentive to introduce an ailing mother into your background is if you’re a drama llama who likes that sort of thing. But under the new Ben hack, doing this is an excellent idea, because when you’re low on hit points later on, you can talk about how worried you are about your mother and ker-ching! you get some hit points back.

And because it’s docked into hit points specifically, they will be having these conversations at a specific time i.e. after a fight. No point having the conversation just before a fight, in fact you’re squandering a future opportunity to heal! So you’ll get a rhythm: encounter, conversation; encounter, conversation. Now imagine if it was docked into the advantage system instead, so that you got advantage on your next roll. Or if it was docked into the XP system, so you just got some XP. That incentivises totally different types of play.

So you can see that even quite a small change to the rules could create a fairly radical change to the play experience. Now when you get into much broader changes to the rules, that’s the danger zone when it comes to system. Think of the system like a garden. If you plant a small herbaceous plant somewhere in there, it could potentially harm or benefit neighbouring plants, or those plants might harm or benefit it, but the garden as a whole won’t change that much. If you plant a gallumphing pine tree in the middle of that garden, you’re definitely going to change the look and feel of the garden, and maybe kill off some other plants. If you do that a lot, before you know it you’ve got a different garden entirely. And the key thing is, if you do it at random, the garden will be a mess, and many of the original plants may become unhappy.

Don’t get me wrong: a hotchpotch, higgledy piggledy garden could be beautiful and enjoyable. I’m not saying “you must design your game to be completely coherent and perfect”. But on the other hand if you simply throw things together randomly, you’re trusting to luck that it’s all going to work in combination. The more you venture from house rule to hack, the more you can benefit from thinking about that garden – that eco-system – as a whole, and designing stuff to fit together.

Ok, that’s enough for now. Next time I’ll start thinking about the softer stuff – venturing beyond procedures and into principles and culture.

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[*] But what about generic systems, I hear you cry! Well, so-called generic systems are generally promoting a particular type of play, too. D&D is sometimes held up as generic, but its systems aren’t designed to do just anything – for instance, they ignore completely the emotional life of the characters to focus on practical matters like whether I can kill this orc or get past this trap or seduce this guardsman. The designers of D&D thought their game would focus on orcs and traps and guardsmen, not hopes and fears; other games do the opposite. That’s the sort of thing I mean when I say the game is going to generate a specific type of experience.

Last Fleet is live on Kickstarter!

[The Last Fleet Kickstarter funded in 2020. You can now find the game here.]

Hello everyone!

The Last Fleet kickstarter campaign is now live!

Last Fleet is a PBTA game about a rag-tag fleet, fleeing across space from the merciless inhuman foe that destroyed human civilisation. You play brave pilots, officers, engineers, politicians and journalists fighting to keep the fleet – and themselves – in one piece.

The game is focused on action, intrigue and drama in this high-pressure setting. The game’s setting, situation and mechanics push the theme of pressure, whether it’s through white knuckle space battles, tense hunts for infiltrators on the fleet, or the social fallout when your characters finally crack. It excels at the classic PBTA rhythm of switching between action and interpersonal drama.

If you like the sound of that, please do check out the Kickstarter page where you can see previews of the art, read more about the game, download the reference sheets, and of course back the campaign.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/blackarmada/last-fleet-rpg-lastfleetrpg

Thanks for your support.
Cheers,

Josh

How does system matter? (part 1: designer intent, and mechanical procedures)

There seems to be a mini-rash of “system matters” discussion happening at the moment. I’ve often found these discussions get lost in differing definitions – you can’t agree whether system matters if you don’t agree what system is. More importantly, different aspects of system matter in entirely different ways. So rather than debate whether it matters, I’m going to break down different aspects of “system” and consider what’s important about them. This will be a multi-part series.

Here’s a list of things I’m planning to talk about in this context. Possibly more will come up later.

  • Designer intent
  • Formal written procedures of play (“the rules”)
  • House rules, mods and hacks
  • Written principles and implicit directions
  • Unspoken rules at the table
  • Play culture

Let’s start with designer intent. You might think this is not part of system (and I pretty much agree) but it obviously shapes many of the other items on the list above, specifically the formal procedures, written principles and implicit directions.

A designer can have a greater or lesser focus on specific themes, a specific type of experience they want you to have, or particular styles of play that they favour. The important thing to say here is that designer intent only matters to the extent it’s communicated to actual or potential players. This can be done through the rules, through the background material, through guidance, through the game art, even through marketing or interventions on social media.

But let’s face it: in most cases, people will only have take in what’s in the game book. Anything else, no matter how important, is likely going to be missed by most of your target audience.

Regardless of how it’s communicated, it doesn’t matter what you meant when you designed your game, only what the players understand. This isn’t a philosophical point about the nature of meaning, but a practical point about the nature of game design. Of course different audiences will take different meanings from what you say, and with the variety of game culture that’s out there it is very likely that someone, somewhere is going to misunderstand what you intended.

In fact it’s even worse than that, because (in my experience) many people don’t properly read the rules at all. They skim, they grab the printouts and run, they make assumptions or ignore rules they don’t understand. This is one of the things that makes playtesting important, because you don’t know how people outside your circles will read (or not) your words.

Game design is communication. Communication is messy and imperfect. No amount of playtesting can eliminate misunderstandings. You aren’t designing a car, where the systems interlock and perform in exactly the way you imagined; you’re designing practices for humans, and humans never perform the same way twice.

Anyway, that’s a long and rambly way of saying that design intent is hella important, but ultimately once you put the game out there in the world, no longer matters.

So what does matter? Well, let’s get our teeth into what most people probably think of when they hear the word “system”: the rules.

Here I like to talk about procedures. A procedure is a structured way of doing something. It takes an input, and turns it into an output, according to a fixed, mechanistic formula. Or in the case of roleplaying, it more typically takes many and complex fictional inputs, turns them into fewer and simpler mechanical components, futzes around with them (in a structured, mechanical way) to generate mechanical outputs, which in turn are translated back into fictional outputs.

Still: the distinction I’m making when I talk about procedures is that they’re mechanical. No matter how complex your rules, the procedural parts of them can be boiled down into simple if-then statements. That’s not all there is to rules – we’ll get to principles and directions, later on – but it’s an important aspect of “rules” that dominates many people’s thinking, perhaps because everyone is familiar with rules from other contexts like board games and wargames.

But it is worth pausing to note that in a roleplaying game, you cannot activate a mechanical procedure without first making a fictional interpretation. Even something simple like an attack roll requires you first to recognise that someone has attacked someone else in the game’s fiction. You have to interpret the fiction to do that. “I hit him with my sword”, cool, make an attack roll. “Did I mention my sword is made out of marshmallow”, oh, uh… I guess not then. So, as I’ll discuss in a moment, clearly rules are important, they matter, but they only function as filtered through the human and fictional medium: your brain and the brains of the other people at the table and the stuff they’re trying to imagine together. (Maybe we’ll get back to that later.)

The key thing about procedures is that they are fixed. Once you’ve decided that it’s time to make an attack roll, you must roll a d20, and if it equals or exceeds the target’s AC, you must roll damage and subtract it from the target’s hit points. If the target’s hit points reach zero, they die.

Seems pretty hard-edged, and with examples like that we can all clearly see that the rules are going to matter. If the rules say that short swords do d6 damage, and a normal human has d8 hit points, we can see that humans will typically last a lot longer than if short swords do 2d6 damage and a normal human has d4 hit points, or if we skip damage rolls altogether and just say that a successful hit roll kills the target.

All this is deciding is how quickly we go from “roll initiative” to “everyone is dead”, but it will make a huge impact on the play experience. Would you want to start a fight if one successful hit roll will kill you? That will feel a lot differently than if you and your buddies each get 50 HP while your opponents get about 10. And that’s without even getting into whether the game includes rules for fighting in the first place.

So one way in which the rules matter is that they compel you to change the fiction, and they compel you to do it in particular ways. If your game rules say that one successful hit roll = death, you’re compelled to play a game where fighting is really dangerous, and so we either won’t have very much of it, or we’ll have a lot of people dying. If your game rules say that player characters have tons of hit points but NPCs don’t, we’re compelled to play a game where fighting is pretty safe for PCs, which is very different.

Compelled? Well, yes. If you use the rules as written. We’ll be coming back to house rules, play culture and all sorts of ways in which you can ignore the rules. But enough to say here: obviously if you ignore the rules then they don’t matter. Rules only compel you if you let them. Still, something isn’t really a rule at all if you don’t obey it, right? As long as you’re following the procedures to the letter, they really fucking matter.

One other way in which the procedures of play matter is that they generally cover only specific types of thing, not everything you could possibly do. D&D Basic*, the ancient and revered forefather of the biggest fish in the roleplaying sea, didn’t have any skill system. If you wanted to, I dunno, deceive a guard, there weren’t any rules for that. You could houserule it, you could make something up on the fly (and we’ll get to the ways in which a game can actively encourage you to do that, or not). But it wasn’t in the book, and that meant that deception was only a part of play if the group decided to make it part of play. Unlike stabbing things with swords, which was explicitly and formally coded into the game.

Now obviously many people put deception into their D&D Basic game. This may have been an inevitable consequence of the narrowness of the rules in that game, the massive gaps it left, and the incentives of play: obviously someone was going to want to lie to a guard at some point. Obviously someone would need to come up with a way to do that. And so a thousand house rules were spawned, and eventually D&D 5e. But meanwhile, there wasn’t any fixed way to handle deception, and very probably many games didn’t have it in at all. And practically nobody ran D&D without fighting in it. Because, amongst other reasons, that’s what the rules were focused on: fighting, not lying.

So that’s two ways in which the procedures of play matter: they fix certain ways of doing things by making them mechanical; and they channel you towards doing certain things rather than other things. Those are pretty big impacts!

Next up, we’ll think about some things that modify the procedures of play, and some things that aren’t procedures (as I’ve defined them) at all. The next article in this series is here.

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*Ok, it wasn’t called D&D Basic** back then, and many people don’t call it that now. Probably it wasn’t even the first, because once it was chainmail or whatever. The point stands.
** I’m told I should head of pedants by saying I’m referring to the original edition of the game, circa 1974. Honestly, I’m not even sure. If that version didn’t have skills mechanics, great, it’s an example of what I’m talking about.

Join the UK Indie RPG League!

Are you interested in selling games at UK conventions, but want to avoid the cost and loneliness of doing it by yourself? Then you’re going to be interested in this.

The UK Indie League is recruiting. We’re a group of friends who go to conventions together to sell our tabletop roleplaying games. We share convention costs, and we staff the stall together, so we have friendly company and can take breaks without abandoning the stall. It’s a chance to meet fans of our games and sell stuff to people who might otherwise not see it. Plus you get free entry to the conventions, which is nice.

We’re looking for new members. You’d join us at conventions, bring your stuff, and help us to sell our stuff and yours. You keep your share of the profits, and you pay a fair share of the stall costs based on how much space your products take up and how much you sell. You’d also need to cover your own transport and accommodation costs. It’s on a trial basis initially, because we need to know we like each other before we commit to something more long-term.

The next convention we’ve got coming up is UK Games Expo. It runs from Friday 29 to Sunday 31 May 2020 at the Birmingham NEC. If you’re not interested in UKGE, it’s still worth getting in touch, and we’ll consider you for future events, but right now we’re prioritising getting people who can help with that.

If that sounds good, we’d love to hear from you. We have to limit numbers to keep things manageable, so we can’t guarantee we’ll say yes, but we’ll look seriously at every application. Please fill in this Google Form to register your interest. We’re happy to talk about what’s involved in more detail, just drop us a line at indieleague(at)vapourspace[dot]net.

Black Armada supports KSRU

We’ve been watching closely the attempts by the Kickstarter United (KSRU) to get recognised by Kickstarter as an official union. We’ve been dismayed by the response by Kickstarter. We support staff efforts to unionise, and we support the demands for Kickstarter to #recognizeKSRU.

We would like to emphasise that KSRU have not called for a boycott of Kickstarter, and doing so unilaterally at this stage is likely to undermine efforts to secure recognition. We are not boycotting Kickstarter. With that said, we support individual choice and nobody should be attacked for choosing to stay away from the platform at this time.

Below is an email we have sent to Kickstarter senior management (kickstarter-sot(at)kickstarter.com) and to thoughts(at)kickstarterunited.org. We’d urge all creators and backers to make your support known too.

To whom it may concern


We are writing as co-owners of Black Armada Games. We are three-time creators on Kickstarter. We have backed dozens of projects ourselves. We truly appreciate the service that Kickstarter and its workers provide to help entrepreneurs and individuals alike bring their dreams to life. We are substantial beneficiaries of that service, and we would like to use it again. Indeed, we have a campaign coming up in early 2020 that we would like to put on Kickstarter.


However, your company’s position on recognition of Kickstarter United has put us in a very difficult position. We support employees’ right to unionise as a matter of principle. We support the aims that KSRU have put forward – honestly, we struggle to see how anyone could disagree with them. It seems to us that those aims, and the support for workers to be able to unionise, is strongly consistent with Kickstarter’s stated values, not least as Kickstarter is a public benefit corporation.


It is clear that Kickstarter’s actions have been to oppose unionisation. While you have claimed to take a neutral position, in practice you have argued against forming a union, you have pushed for a process (NLRB elections) which will impede the speed and likelihood of the union being recognised. And that is without even considering the sacking of KSRU organisers, an action which looks deeply suspicious. We are horrified by these actions and, were KSRU to call for a boycott, they would have our wholehearted support and compliance.


With all that said, we have a decision to make as to whether to put our next campaign on Kickstarter or choose one of your many rival crowdfunding sites. We imagine we are not alone in reconsidering whether Kickstarter is the best platform for our brand and our values. We do not wish to undermine KSRU and we are not boycotting your site, but as a business we have to choose the best platform for our work. We may yet decide to continue with Kickstarter, but this issue weighs heavily in our minds.


And so we call on you to voluntarily recognise KSRU. End your oppositional behaviour. Redeem your reputation and move on from this PR disaster. Live your values and those of countless creators and backers. And selfishly, we’d ask you to do it swiftly so as to make our decision about our campaign an easy one.


Yours


Josh Fox and Becky Annison

Black Armada Games

Push and pull mechanics

A popular mechanic which crops up in a lot of excellent games is Conditions. A Condition is a problem that’s affecting your character, like “broken leg”, “on fire” or “suspected traitor”. The idea is that the GM will hit you with trouble when your Condition would be relevant, or penalise you when it would get in the way. But this doesn’t work as well as you might think.

The trouble is, Conditions hardly ever get used. Why? Because they require the GM to Push them into the game[*]. In other words, the GM has to remember that the Condition is in play and bring it to bear on the game’s fiction and/or mechanics. This requires the GM to divert their limited attention and make a decision. I found this out to my cost in recent playtests of Last Fleet, where a whole bunch of Condition-type mechanics just never seemed to bite.

There are various ways you can increase the salience of these GM-Push mechanics, to help avoid them disappearing into the general cacophony of demands on the GM’s attention. Taking a mechanic off the player’s character sheet and putting it onto the GM’s reference sheet where the GM can more easily see it, for instance. Or better yet, put it in big letters on a nice, visible index card that sits in plain sight right in front of the relevant player. But even so, that’s just greasing the GM’s cognitive wheels a little. You’re still putting the onus on the GM to turn those wheels.

But there’s two ways you can restructure your mechanics to make them work without needing a GM push:

  • Turn them into a Pull mechanic
  • Turn them into a Player-Push mechanic

Let’s start with Pull mechanics. A Pull mechanic is automatically activated in fixed circumstances, drastically reducing the cognitive demands of the mechanic. For example, where a Condition relating to an injury generates work for someone to apply it in the fiction, a simple Harm or Hit Points mechanic are much easier to track.

You might think that sounds kind of boring: am I really recommending Hit Points as a mechanic? Well, it needn’t be dull. The system of Marks in Night Witches is essentially a Hit Point system, but it’s one where every time you take damage, something interesting happens. It’s just that the interesting thing happens automatically. Whenever certain Moves are triggered, someone has to choose consequences which include taking a Mark, and when someone takes a Mark, the fictional or mechanical consequence is applied right away.

The other approach is to use Player-Push mechanics. The difference here is, you put the onus on the owning player to activate the relevant mechanic. A good example is the Conditions found in Masks: A New Generation. Although having the same name as the GM-Push mechanic mentioned above, these work differently. Each Condition is tied to a particular Move or Moves in the game, and creates an automatic penalty each and every time that Move is used. The penalty itself is a Pull mechanic: whenever you use those Moves, the penalty applies, so no thought or judgement required. But removing the Condition is a Player-Push mechanic: if a player wants to remove the “Angry” Condition, they have to break something important, which requires them to choose that action. Now a player character’s Anger can be applied to create interesting complications in scenes, but it’s up to the player to choose when instead of the GM. And there’s a clear incentive for them to do it, because as long as they’ve got that Condition they’re continuing to take the penalty.

Another nice thing about Player-Push mechanics, by the way, is that they hand more power and narrative control to the players. That’s usually a good thing in my view: it means they’re more engaged with the game, and it means that the trouble that is created is something they’re eager to get to grips with – after all they chose it.

You can even combine the two. An example is Pressure in my own WIP game Last Fleet. Pressure is used as a kind of Hit Point system, whenever a character takes harm but also when they take an emotional shock – a Pull mechanic that happens automatically when the rules say so. But players can also voluntarily Mark Pressure to get bonuses to rolls – a Player-Push mechanic that provides a clear incentive for the players to make trouble for themselves. Finally, when you get to 5 Pressure, you hit Breaking Point, forcing you to choose from a list of irrational or risky actions to take that will complicate your character’s life. Breaking Point is another Pull mechanic: it kicks in without any decision needing to be taken.

There’s definitely room for GM-Pull mechanics. In most games, part of the fun of being the GM is to exercise your attention and judgement to spot opportunities to make interesting stuff happen. You wouldn’t get to do that as much if only a mechanical trigger or player decision enabled you to do it. But, in the interests of lightening the burden on the GM and ensuring your mechanics actually come into play instead of sitting unused on someone’s character sheet, consider using Pull and Player-Push mechanics instead.

As a coda to this, I took three distinct GM-Push mechanics in Last Fleet and converted them over to a mix of Pull and Player-Push mechanics. I’m really happy with how they bring into sharp focus elements that were previously relegated to a minor role or just plain didn’t work.

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[*] Ok, to be fair, in a lot of games other players can activate Conditions too, using another player’s Condition against them. But the principle is the same – it requires someone else to think of the Condition and bring it into play.