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Welcome to Black Armada

Black Armada is a small press publisher and blog 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.

We’re the publishers of games such as Lovecraftesque, Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars, and Bite Me! – you can buy them in our store.

You’ll also 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.

Our blog is funded through the Black Armada Patreon. If you like what you see here, we’d really appreciate your support.

If you’d like to get in touch with us, please use our Contact form.

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.

[*] 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.

Bite Marks is on Backerkit

We’ve sent Bite Marks off to the printers, which means it’s now available for pre-order if you missed the Kickstarter campaign.

Bite Marks is a PBTA game of werewolf pack dynamics. This is a game about being a werewolf, in a Pack. The Pack is a deeply intimate and close family; like a family, sometimes it is full of love and happiness and sometimes it is brutal and dysfunctional. But love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it – it will shape you. Fearless Alpha, dedicated foot soldier, pacifist scholar or rebellious cub – your relationship with the Pack is the cornerstone of who and what you are.

You might notice the game’s name has changed – we had some difficulty with a similarly-named board game, hence the change. We hope you like it!

You can pre-order Bite Marks here.

Get our games on itchio

We’ve also uploaded our back catalogue of smaller games to itchio. These include some of the first games we ever designed. Create your own disaster movie, fight a deadly duel between close friends, play farm animals overthrowing the despotic farmer, and more. Most of them are free (with optional donation).

And we’re uploading the games we’ve offered through our patreon. The first two games, Soap Bubble and What the Water Gave Me are already up there, with more coming soon. Of course, if you like these then you should consider backing the patreon, where you’ll regularly get games like this, before they show up on itchio.
 

Last Fleet playtest

The first two rounds of Last Fleet playtests are complete. As a reminder, Last Fleet is a PBTA game where you play brave pilots, officers, engineers and politicians on board a rag-tag fleet of ships, fleeing across space from an implacable, inhuman adversary.

The game is in great shape, but there have been some tweaks which need further playtesting. If you’d like to take it out for a spin, drop us a line at lastfleet@vapourspace.net and we’ll send you a playtest pack.

Getting from an idea to a first draft.

This is a companion piece to Josh’s blog about curating ideas.  My method of curation is slightly different to his; but I wanted to talk first about my process getting from a game idea to a first draft. 

Full disclosure… I am an incorrigible consumer of productivity systems and books about ‘getting creative work done’.  I love reading about how other people ‘get shit done’ so I can constantly refine my own methods.  If there is a book about creative productivity, then the chances are, I’ve got it.  Not all systems work for me (not all systems work at all!) but there are two things that I use pretty much constantly to support me in getting from idea to first draft. 

Firstly, I keep a bullet journal.  I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now and it is really valuable to me.  I don’t have one of those pretty artful bullet journals that look adorable and perfect.  I have a boring A5 notebook and a couple of pens that are comfortable to write with and I scribble in it.  But I use it every single day. And I put everything in it: I log my goals, lists of the games I want to write, plans for my kids birthday parties or the vegetable garden, design notes, daily gratitudes, I sketch out rough weekly diary spreads, long lists of things to do and notes on my life.  I put it all in one book where I can regularly reflect on it.  I mix up all my game notes, with everything else and I organise it using the bullet journal method.   

This means that I have one physical book that is with me all the time; a book I’m checking and reviewing several times a day.  Games and ideas don’t get shoved in a folder and forgotten about – as I leaf through my book they are there reminding me and poking at me to get them written. Those ideas sit in the middle of the sprawl of my life allowing me to make connections I would never have otherwise seen. The bullet journal system gives me confidence that nothing will be forgotten, and that in turn allows my brain precious breathing space. 
 
If you’ve been put off bullet journalling because you can’t or don’t want to spend hours drawing instagram-worthy spreads then do not fear! That isn’t the core of bullet journalling and ignore all that stuff and just write in a scrappy ballpoint pen. 

Why not use something like Evernote or some app?  On a personal level I love the tactile nature of a physical book. I love that it is dog-eared, covered in scribbles and notes and stickers and that it looks used.  I enjoy having a tangible artifact of my life in that way.  

But there are advantages to me outside this much more personal preference. The main one is that there are no distractions.  It is just me and the paper. There are no email alerts, no temptations to check social media and no getting sucked into a rabbit hole of TV tropes or and then forgetting why I’m here.  It is a clean room for me to sketch out ideas and log the little pieces of insight as they strike me. 

But that is only half the story.   

Getting from that book to a first draft is a different beast entirely, it is something that requires time and time is hard for many of us.  This is where I will give my one and only recommendation for a creative, productivity book – ‘Growing Gills by Jessica Abel’.  This book has lots of really good insights and support but one killer technique was life changing for me.   

The technique is this: for 2 weeks you write down everything you do in a day in 15 min increments.  It sounds nightmarish, I know.  But I honestly did that.  I have a job, two kids and various other commitments and I did my two weeks of logging every 15 mins. This process forced me to confront a couple of things.  First, I ended up with hard data on where I spent your time and when it was being spent.  I knew roughly how much much tv watching and internet surfing I was doing but after two weeks I knew precisely.  No hiding. But  I also knew that the 10 mins I spent standing at a bus stop checking my phone on a Thursday morning couldn’t really have been used any other way.  But the clear block of 2 hours I spent surfing the internet on a Friday evening could have been spent writing. 

This gets you to the second thing. 

Where do I really want to spend the precious time I have?

As I said before, I have a job, two kids, hobbies and a vegetable garden.  Up until about 6 months ago I had precious little writing time.  So, I got really clear on my priorities.  Sometimes I really did need do nothing but watch You Tube and surf Pinterest for an evening. Maybe I was exhausted, maybe my mental health wasn’t that great and I needed to check out for a bit.  But other times I decided that I wanted to write more than I needed to check out. I could see from the data where I had timeslots that I could spend on writing and then I wrote a date and a time in my diary (which is in my bullet journal) and treated it like any other appointment. 

So that is what I do.  I put time aside for writing and make it a priority – but I make it a priority based on having a really deep understanding of my habits, my schedule, my needs and desires.  In the early days that time slot was only 1 or 2 hours a week (remember I have young kids!) but that 1 hour a week was a lot better than the 8 potential hours a week that never happened for me. 

I guess this is a pretty boring blog post.  It is like when people ask ‘how did you get fit’ and the answer is – I exercised a bit and ate more vegetables. 

How I turn an idea into a game is really boring – I write down all my ideas in my journal (the same one I write everything else in), I organise my journal so it is easy to find information again.  Then I’m ruthlessly honest with myself about what time I can put aside for writing and I diarise it as an appointment in my journal. Then I turn up with my journal and my laptop and I do the writing.  I do it even if I’d rather knit and watch Netflix.  I do it whether or not I feel inspired. 
 
And then I end up with a first draft ready for lots of shredding and rewriting. 

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How I run investigation games (part 2: in-session)

Last time I wrote about how I prep investigation games. I’ll talk a bit more about that here, but I also want to move on to talk about what I do during sessions.

My aim in running an investigative game is twofold:

  • Make the players feel smart
  • Make the investigation challenging

Those two aims seem kind of contradictory, but in a way they support each other. You cannot feel smart if the game hands you everything on a plate. You cannot feel challenged if the game is simplistic or handled entirely through dice rolls.

As discussed in a previous article, you can break investigation down into various components:

  • Leads (where should I look next?)
  • Imprints (what clues are there?)
  • Patterns (how do the clues fit together?)
  • Conclusions (what is my theory of the case?)

I want as much as possible of the above to feel like they were investigated by the players themselves, using their own brainpower, without running up against the perennial problems of analysis paralysis and the thing that seems obvious to the GM not being at all obvious to the players. I’m not going to pretend those problems aren’t real – and more on how I tackle them below. But for now, let’s talk about how I handle the components above.

My initial lead is always given away for free. That’s a given: the game will be no fun if you can’t get started.

From that point on, I follow a simple set of rules:

  • If a clue is obvious, you don’t have to roll to find it
  • If a clue is hidden but you look in the place it’s hidden, you find it without rolling
  • You can find any clue with an appropriate roll
  • Once you’ve got the clues, it’s mostly down to you to figure out the logical leads, patterns, and conclusions

You can probably see for yourself how the above could easily lead to an investigation stalling. If the players don’t look in the right place, or roll badly, or can’t figure out the next lead, then everything grinds to a halt. There are three principal ways that I solve this:

  • Critical mass. I make sure there are enough clues available that it’s unlikely they’ll fail to find anything.
  • Keep some leads obvious. Signposting specific characters or locations as being of interest will ensure there’s always a next step to follow (but there’s always the potential to discover more)
  • Move the clock on. If the players are taking too long, then I look to the next event on my timeline and make it happen – so even if they get stuck, the story doesn’t

The aim here isn’t to make it impossible to fail the investigation. That wouldn’t be challenging, and it wouldn’t make the players feel smart. The aim, instead, is to make sure that they never get completely stuck – even if they’re failing, they’re moving forwards. So there’s always enough clues to find something out, and there’s always enough obvious leads that you have somewhere to look next.

Equally, my aim is to create a potential dividend from being smart, from being lucky, and from being quick. Players who get lucky on the dice find more clues; players who think their way around those clues and ask good questions discover patterns and start to reach conclusions; and those clues and conclusions can enable them to get ahead of my timeline. Those who move at the minimum pace enabled by following the obvious links, probably find themselves fighting for their lives at the finalé, having left a trail of murders in their wake. Those who leverage luck and judgement may be able to save some lives and catch the perpetrator unawares.

What this means is: being open to the players failing – so that another person is killed (or whatever consequences I established in my timeline happen); but also being open to them wildly succeeding, so that my villains fail and their plans are completely foiled. The critical mass of clues and obvious leads means that I’m hopefully leaning towards success over the medium-term, with occasional frustrating blocks that make that success more satisfying when it comes.

I cannot overemphasise how important it is for failure to come with consequences. If they get stuck, then those consequences mean that the game doesn’t get stuck; instead of their next lead being a witness they want to investigate or a place they want to investigate, the next lead comes in a body bag. And of course, this also means that when they succeed, they’ll know that it was earned, because they know what happens when they fail.

Very occasionally this means the players fail utterly. The villains complete their plan entirely, and escape. That’s great. It means there’s now a future recurring villain, who the players really want to take down, because they feel responsible for not catching them the first time. As long as things didn’t grind to a halt during the session, so there were always fresh leads to follow and tense pacing created by my timeline events, then failure is ok.

One last thing: do not let things drift towards out of character discussion of clues. To a degree all theorising is out of character, since you don’t actually have the skills, knowledge and brainpower of your characters. But try to keep people talking as their characters, because that will help to reinforce the sense that any frustration they may be feeling is fictional, it’s part of the story. They’re not sat on your couch feeling worn down by the investigation, they’re stood in a dark alley looking at a corpse and wondering when the next one will show up.

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Breaking down hard moves

Apocalypse World introduced the concept of Hard Moves, i.e. the individual interventions the GM makes in response to players’ actions and rolls. Subsequent PBTA games have tended to distinguish between “hard” and “soft” moves. But they vary wildly in how much time they put into explaining the distinction. Here I’m going to talk about the different ways in which a move can be “harder” or “softer”.

Before I get started I should pause to acknowledge that Magpie Games have done a pretty great job of talking about this in the past. Check out Urban Shadows and Masks: A New Generation for a particularly good treatment of the topic. What I’m trying to do here, building on that, is to break down and codify the different types of move “hardness”.

My thinking about moves is informed by my professional life, where I have some experience of risk management. Risk management is the discipline of recording and managing all the bad stuff that might happen to your business. Sometimes people use similar techniques to manage potential good stuff too (opportunities); and you can also manage “issues” which is essentially a risk or opportunity that has already come to fruition.

In risk management, we think about the probability of a risk coming to pass, and the impact if it comes to pass. You can have an absolutely terrible risk that would devastate your business, but which isn’t very likely to happen, or a fairly mild risk that would cause you problems, but is highly likely to occur. You’ll treat those two very differently, and its debatable which you ought to focus on. But for our purposes, you can apply a similar(ish) approach to thinking about moves.

Start with probability and a related concept, proximity. Let’s compare some scenarios where the GM is making a move:

  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher, and she’s fired it at you. It’s going to explode at your feet in a few seconds’ time. What do you do?
  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher, and she’s aiming it at you. What do you do?
  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher, and she’s aiming it at your party. What do you do?
  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher, a few metres away. She hasn’t seen you yet, but she’s about to. What do you do?
  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher a few blocks away. She’s heading in your general direction. What do you do?
  • You get a message warning you about this bounty hunter, Screwball. Her favoured weapon is a grenade launcher. Apparently she’s taken a contract to take you out. What do you do?

Obviously, all these scenarios vary in hardness. In all cases, there’s a potential threat – a woman with a grenade launcher. What’s different between the scenarios is how definite that threat is (how likely it is that the threat will come to pass) and/or how immediate that threat is (how close the threat is in time or space). In all cases the basic worry is “I might get blown up with a grenade”, but the hardness of the move is hugely different depending on the probability and the proximity of the threat.

A caveat to the above is that in most PBTA games, if the GM has mentioned something as a threat then we kind of know that, if we do nothing, the threat will come to pass. There’s not really any such thing as probability – the GM decides what happens. Of course other games are different; in OSR games, for instance, the GM might well roll to decide if an extant threat heads your way or not. In that case probability can be a genuine factor. Either way, a move that is currently low-probability and/or low-proximity at the very least gives me longer to react, so it’s a softer move.

Now let’s think about impact. In risk management this is broken down simply by severity, i.e. where does this sit between being an existential threat down to simply a minor inconvenience. That applies to GM moves as well. But in roleplaying we can also think about significance, i.e. how much do we care about the outcome. Some examples may help to illustrate:

  • A gang has hired an assassin to kill you. What do you do?
  • A gang his hired a local leg-breaker to rough you up. What do you do?
  • A gang has decided to burn your house down. What do you do?
  • A gang has hired a local leg-breaker to rough up your nephew. What do you do?

Now obviously in the examples above, you’re more worried about an assassin than a leg-breaker, because the severity of the threat is lower in the second case. But which is more of a threat – having your own legs broken, or those of your beloved nephew? We don’t know the answer to that unless we know how significant your nephew is. If they’re your beloved nephew, you might put their wellbeing above your own. Similarly, what about your house? Losing your house is probably less severe than losing your life, but the significance is unknown.

Moves that are significant are often much more of a body-blow than a far more severe move that’s of lower significance. Here’s some fun examples:

  • Your hated mother has hired a local assassin to kill you. What do you do?
  • Your beloved mother has hired a local assassin to kill you. What do you do?
  • Your beloved mother has tears in her eyes. Her lip trembles but she hardens her face and says “Get out. I never want to see you again.”

It seems like having your mother target you with a move is probably more significant than when it’s some gang. But it’s a big difference if your mother is beloved or not. How terrible, that your mother – who you love – has gone so far as to have you killed! But the final example is perhaps the most significant: even though the severity is lower (we aren’t talking about life and death anymore, after all) having your beloved mother cut you out of her life might be seen as a “harder” move than the other two.

In my view, significance is the key to really effective hard moves, because they hit you in your emotions. It is worth reflecting, though, that a really significant threat requires some ground-work. My nephew is going to seem more significant to me, the player, if we’ve spent some time establishing who he is and building him up as beloved, than if he’s simply introduced as “your beloved nephew, who is now under threat from a local leg-breaker”.

Related to the above is target. We tend to assume that a move that targets you is harder than one which targets someone else. But that isn’t necessarily the case – after all, people will risk their own life to save that of someone they love. Similarly, we can ask which is a harder move: your beloved mother cuts you out of her life, or your beloved mother cuts your dying father out of her life? The answer, of course, goes back to significance, but I mention target as a separate issue simply because it’s easy to forget that you have the option to target someone other than the players.

Another layer you can add on top of all this is choice, because forcing people to make decisions automatically makes a move harder, and because a choice between two bad outcomes means it might be literally impossible to avoid both. The mere fact that you had to choose the bad outcome can make the resulting badness seem more significant, too.

The final variable I want to mention is sign, as in positive or negative. That is, we can distinguish between moves that have consequences that a character perceives as bad, versus those which have consequences that the character perceives as good. I mention this mostly because – just as most risk managers focus on bad stuff over opportunities – most GMs focus on escalating bad situations over offering potential rewards. It’s a totally valid move, even in response to a bad roll, to offer an opportunity. A “positive” move might even be seen as a fairly hard move in the right circumstances, if it’s an opportunity that comes with risks.

So that’s the seven ways you can vary the hardness of a move:

  • Probability
  • Proximity (in time and space)
  • Severity
  • Significance
  • Target
  • Choice
  • Sign

What techniques do you use to keep your moves interesting? Let me know in comments!

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How I run investigation games (part 1: prep)

A really juicy mystery, with the cool feeling of piecing together clues and coming to the correct conclusion, is one of my favourite things in roleplaying. It’s also something that I feel isn’t well delivered by existing RPG systems. Here I’m going to talk about my approach to building a mystery and enabling real investigation.

This isn’t the first time I’ve explored this terrain. Back in 2013 I talked about how mysteries are like stones falling into a pool, creating ripples. And I went on to talk about how investigation isn’t just about clue detection, but about deduction and reaching conclusions. But I stopped short of talking about how to construct a satisfying mystery, which is what I want to do now.

Just for the moment, let’s assume I have an ok system that will cover the business of discovering clues, and an ok premise that make sure the players want to investigate this mystery. I may come back to these later, but let’s imagine they’re solved problems for the purposes of this article. Let’s also assume I’m running something that has a substantial investigative focus, so there’s more than just one simple mystery to solve.

I then create my mystery in a number of fairly discrete steps:

  • Decide what the fundamental driver of the mystery is. Something like “There’s a cult trying to summon a demon through a series of ceremonial sacrifices”, or “House Rukh are planning to assassinate the governor and take over the planetary government”
  • Generate from this driver a series of events. These can be past events which the players are (presumably) going to be investigating, or future events which the players are (presumably) going to be trying to avert.
  • For each past event, I generate a footprint, that is, a set of clues which are out there waiting to be discovered by the players.
  • The footprint breaks down into physical clues and witnesses, which are obviously investigated in different ways. Each of these is amenable to assigning a location and/or time. I’m also thinking about the ways in which the players might discover the clues, though I’m leaving myself open to other ways as well.
  • For future events, I generate a timing and/or trigger, some consequences, and (in case the players don’t find out about it until after it happens) a footprint, exactly as for a past event.

For instance, let’s look at the cult example:

  • For events, I decide that the cult has already sacrificed two victims. One of them was pursued through a particular district in the city in the night, and then murdered in a junkyard. The other was killed previously and more quietly, in their apartment.
  • The pursuit generated some witnesses along the route it followed – people who heard screams for help and some who looked out of their windows to see a group of figures pursuing the victim.
  • Both the murders generate a corpse, some messy bloodstains, perhaps a footprint. They also include the identity of the corpse – for the junkyard murder that may not be obvious, while the apartment victim (if the players discover it) is in their apartment so probably can easily be ID’d.
  • The junkyard murder will be reported, which is the trigger for the players’ investigation. The apartment murder will likely lie fallow for a while, but might show up later.
  • I also create three future events: a near miss where someone is cornered by the cult and nearly killed, but escapes by jumping out of a window; and a murder that involves an initial kidnapping and the victim being brought to a specific site for the final sacrifice. Perhaps the near-miss will report in to the authorities and the players can find out about it that way. Perhaps the kidnapping will be reported, perhaps not.
  • At this stage I might also add in some kind of link between the various murders, be it geographical (the locations form a shape on the map, with the final sacrifice in the middle) or social (the victims are all highly religious people, say), or whatever.
  • If the final sacrifice is completed then the demon will be summoned and a whole new set of events will be generated after that (but I don’t bother thinking about that right now, because I’m expecting that the players will stop the sacrifice happening and/or kill the demon after it’s summoned.

Once I’ve planned all this out, I’ll review what I’ve got to make sure there’s enough there to give the players a fighting chance of cracking the mystery, but not so much that they’ll solve it in five seconds flat. I can add or remove witnesses and clues until I think I have got that right. Of course, my future events ensure that, no matter what happens, the players will have something to do. If time passes and they haven’t made progress, the next event happens.

I’ll then break the information down into a number of components I can use:

  • A timeline of events
  • A list of locations with clues that can be found there
  • A list of characters with motivations, information they might have and any key abilities

Once I’ve got all that in place, the game more-or-less runs itself. The players move from location to location as prompted by clues and/or a future event becoming a present event. Perhaps they discover clues which help them to get ahead of the timeline, perhaps the timeline runs ahead of them and they’re forced to confront a scary situation unprepared.

I’ll talk in a future article about how I use this prep in practice.

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How I curate my ideas

It is fashionable in game design circles to say that an idea is worth zero dollars. This is meant as a rebuttal to people who try to sell you their brilliant idea for a game. Which, fine – those people can’t really sell you an idea anyway, so that is indeed worth zero dollars. But that doesn’t mean ideas are worthless. On the contrary, an otherwise well-implemented game that lacks interesting ideas probably won’t get very far.

The thing is, ideas are ephemeral. Until you write them down, they’re just this slippery thing in your head. You can come up with dozens of them in a day – on the toilet, in the shower, while you’re trying to get to sleep. But most of them are lost.

In fact, they’re worse than that in many ways, because while you’re busy losing them, they distract you. They stop you sleeping because your brain won’t stop thinking about them. They stop you implementing your current project because you get excited about a different one. This is not good.

And you really don’t want to be at the mercy of your ideas. That way lies a trail of unfinished projects, each abandoned in favour of the latest shiny th- SQUIRREL!

So it is important to curate your ideas. To find a way to capture them before you forget them, and get them out of your head so they don’t distract you. And this, it turns out, is fairly simple: you just write them down.

Here’s what I do:

  • I write a simple one or two sentence summary of any idea that captures my attention for more than a few minutes and add it to my ideas list. In my case that’s a sticky on my laptop, but a notebook would be just as good.
  • I subdivide my ideas list. At the top are things I’m working on now. Then there’s the things that are next in line to work on. I break them down into small games and long games, and non-game things like articles or events.
  • I keep it updated, moving stuff in and out of each category. If it becomes clear I’m not going to finish something (at least not now) then it goes into the back burner section. Abandoned but not forgotten.
  • Because I know what I’m meant to be working on now, and I know I’m not losing the other ideas, I can focus on my top priorities. I’ve always got an idea of what I want to work on next, so if I have to take a break from my current projects (e.g. because they’re out for playtesting) then I can pick up something new right away. My subdivisions enable me to easily choose something small that I can do in a spare day, or something longer, as appropriate.
  • I take breaks from working on active projects to review the list and see what looks good. What has sustained my interest and what now seems less brilliant than it initially did. Which ideas might need to be merged or dropped. So the list isn’t just a dumping ground, it’s a breeding ground for my next project.

Sometimes, an idea is so compelling that even with the above discipline I can’t get it out of my head, I write a concept document. This is a half-page document where I write down:

  • The elevator pitch
  • My design goals – the things I’d want to achieve through it
  • A short summary of how I think I might implement those goals right now.

That goes in a dedicated folder of ideas, where I can easily pull it out again if I need it. Again: I’m getting it out of my head, and written down, but I’m limiting its ability to dominate my creativity and draw me away from what I’m meant to be prioritising.

Of course, sometimes having written a concept document, it’s not enough. I want to flesh out the ideas. I’m struck by passion for this new idea! That’s ok. Sometimes I give myself permission to do this. I might even end up writing the game. But for the most part, the structured process above ensures I retain sustained attention to my current project. I get to keep all the ideas that constantly fly into and out of my brain without letting myself chase those ideas fruitlessly.

How do you manage your ideas? Let me know your top tips!

Designer diary: Last Fleet

I’ve been getting quite a bit of feedback on my current WIP, Last Fleet. In case you’ve missed hearing about it, the game is about the last surviving members of the human race, fleeing across space from an implacable inhuman adversary. The players are brave pilots, officers, politicians and journalists, struggling to keep the fleet – and themselves – in one piece, under immense pressure.

As you might gather from the above, a key theme in Last Fleet is pressure. The core mechanics revolve around gaining and losing Pressure, which acts like hit points and mission/team pool all rolled into one. Crucially, players can gain +1 to any roll, after rolling the dice, by marking 1 Pressure. This means players tend to push their Pressure up of their own accord. Your Pressure track has room for five marks, after which you have to mark and perform a Breaking Point action whereby you do something risky or irrational. Eventually when you’ve marked them all, the (presumably) last Breaking Point action is to die.

Side note: if this sounds quite a bit like Night Witches system of Marks, that’s no coincidence. I’ve drawn inspiration from that. And as you’ll see, I think the lessons from playtesting are pushing the design to being more similar to Night Witches than it currently is.

A significant issue in playtesting has been getting the balance right between being under too much pressure versus not enough. There are lots of variables which can affect this:

  • How often the players make actions that allow them to erase Pressure (social stuff, mostly);
  • How much space the GM gives them to do that;
  • How much the players have to roll the dice;
  • How serious are the consequences the GM puts on the line;
  • How much players work together to min-max their rolls and apply maximum bonuses from assists; and (not forgetting)
  • How well the players roll.

So the system puts the players under pressure, but getting it at the exact right level to avoid either crushing them or leaving them feeling totally relaxed, seems to be a bit of an art. But I’m currently feeling that the system itself makes it too easy to reduce Pressure, while leaving the consequences of bad rolls insufficiently terrifying to prompt the players to increase their own Pressure all that much.

So where is that leading me to? Three (or maybe four) things:

  • I’m toughening up the consequences of bad rolls, including on a 7-9, to increase the stakes of failure. In turn that should mean players wanting to spend more Pressure.
  • I may reduce the overall statline of starting characters, which currently start with +2/+1/+0/+0/-1.
  • I’m reducing how much Pressure is erased when Pressure-reducing moves are taken.
  • I said maybe four. I’m considering whether players trust each other too much. The initial relationships set up tend to push things towards distrust and conflict, but I’m not sure if I’ve taken it far enough. Something to think about.

What’s interesting is that the stories people are coming back with from playtesting sound like exactly the sort of play I want to see – so while people may not feel sufficiently pressured, the game is fundamentally working ok. It needs tuning, perhaps even some significant redesign of individual components, but the overall shape of the design seems right.

If you’re interested in Last Fleet, get in touch! I’ll be doing more playtesting later in the year and I’m always keen to have more playtesters.

Is it ok to fudge rolls?

I was bodding about on Twitter recently and I came across this:

Reading through the comments I saw a lot of pushback against point 2. People saying “But it sucks if some random roll means I get killed by an orc in the first encounter.” “Some players don’t like it when they die, it isn’t fun.” “It’s ok if I got the threat level wrong, so I’m just correcting my mistake.” “You shouldn’t have rolled the dice if you weren’t ready for that outcome.” And so on. This got me thinking about why people fudge dice rolls at all.

Now as I see it, the answer is pretty straightforward. People fudge dice rolls because their chosen game isn’t giving them sufficient discretion in decision-making. They rolled the dice, and what they rolled means they are forced to either implement a fictional outcome they didn’t want, or fudge the roll.

When this happens, it is probably because the game is premised on a simple linear process:

Someone makes an attack -> roll dice -> inflict damage (or not)

See how that works? As soon as the GM picks up the dice, they’re committing to possibly inflicting damage on you. Maybe it will kill you. But that’s all that can happen. They can’t knock you out, they can’t take your stuff and leave you tied up. They can’t leave you beaten but humiliated. And that’s just thinking about possibilities relating to us fighting. We haven’t even got started on how they can’t reveal a terrible secret that will leave you crushed and sobbing, or have a totally different threat raise its head.

My point is, I think a lot of people are playing games with what you might call ballistic mechanics. You get to choose whether to pull the trigger (i.e. roll the dice) but once you’ve done that, you have no choice in where the bullet hits (i.e. what the outcome of the dice roll is). You can solve the problem by cheating – by ignoring the die roll – or by using a system that fires smart missiles instead of dumb bullets.

There’s plenty of games out there which continue to give you choices after you’ve rolled the dice. A failure doesn’t have to imply a mechanically fixed outcome. If you’re reading this and wondering what games I mean, one good avenue to google is Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark, both of which give real, hard consequences to dice rolls – but in a way that gives you interesting choices rather than automatic pre-defined outcomes.

Even D&D (which I assume is what we’re all thinking about here) doesn’t need to be implemented like that. I mean, come on. It isn’t like you haven’t used house rules or not-technically-RAW “roll a d20 and I’ll tell you what happens” for umpteen other things. So why be a stickler about the attack roll? Why not say that on a hit, the orc disarms you, then headbutts you into unconsciousness. You wake up in chains. Hard consequences that generate more fun, instead of snuffing out interesting possibilities.

So if I’m so keen on interesting outcomes, why not just fudge the roll and do it that way? Well, like the Tweet said, this is about social contract. If you’re playing in a group where the expectation is that successful attack rolls lead to hit point loss and hit point loss leads to death, then you’re playing with fire if you don’t enforce that. You’re essentially saying “your choices were meaningless; you thought you were risking death to achieve your goals; you thought there was a point to me rolling these dice; but you weren’t and there isn’t. You might as well stop recording your hit points and stop rolling the dice because the real decision-maker is me, the GM, and I’ll ignore the dice when it suits me.” The whole point of systems with dice rolls is to create risk and drama and make choices meaningful.

The same applies to games where hit point loss and death aren’t automatic consequences of a roll, by the way. Just because I can opt to have you KO’d and captured by the orc instead of killed, doesn’t mean its all just arbitrary GM fiat. I have to abide by the fact that the dice were rolled, so something bad happens. I can’t just shrug my shoulders and say “nothing happens”. If I do that, I’m equally guilty of denying you the fruits of your decisions as the GM who refuses to inflict those hit points because they think it wouldn’t be fun.

But I think that a lot of groups in their heart of hearts don’t want a social contract like the one we see in D&D, RAW. Dying at an arbitrary moment because of bad dice rolls is not everyone’s idea of fun. I think that’s why we see so much fudging going on – because people don’t actually like what the rules tell them they must do. The point is, you’re breaking the social contract if people thought hit point loss and death was a possibility but it actually never was; but you can have a different social contract if you want. You have to ask yourself in advance whether you want arbitrary death or not. You have to talk to your group about how you play the game, and get their consent.

“Hey, I’d like to play some D&D, but I’m not really into the whole ‘one bad roll and you die’ thing, so I’m using a different set of rules. Ok?”

If you do that, then you’ll get the outcome you wanted – you remove arbitrary “un-fun” death from your game. But you get it without having to cheat people out of meaningful choice, and waste time rolling dice when you have no intention of enforcing the results of your rolls. Everyone can engage with the encounters you present, knowing what’s on the table and what isn’t.