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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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.

Reflections on play: Pasion de las Pasiones

I was recently lucky enough to get to play Pasion de las Pasiones by Brandon Leon-Gambetta. Pasion is a (currently ashcan-only) PBTA game based on telenovelas. If you haven’t come across telenovelas, my totally uninformed layperson’s summary is: overwrought, over-the-top Latin American soap operas. Now you might be thinking “why would I play a game about that when I know nothing about telenovelas”, and that is what I thought too. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Pasion is brilliantly designed to reinforce the themes of a telenovela even for a complete novice to the genre. The core mechanics and the playbooks point you in the right direction, probably more effectively than any other game I’ve seen. You cannot really go wrong simply noticing the things that will give you a mechanical benefit and doing them – and if you do, you’ll naturally get both a fun experience and an on-genre experience.

Before I talk any more about how it does this, let’s just look at some things that happened in our game to give you an idea what I’m talking about:

  • Ernesto, the eyepatch-wearing drugs kingpin, fed his lover Maria’s sister to a pair of jaguars for refusing to do his bidding.
  • Ernestino, Ernesto’s twin brother who everyone thought was dead, makes love to Marcela (who is under the impression she is making love to Ernesto) against a marble statue of aphrodite.
  • In a single scene, Maria reveals that she has been posing as a nun to sooth the pain of a wealthy landowner (and inveigle herself into the landowner’s inheritance), and then agrees to run off with Ernesto, ripping off her habit to reveal a slinky dress underneath.
  • The police descend on the (deceased) landowner’s mansion at the reading of her will, to try and wipe out Ernesto’s drug empire, forcing Ernestino and Marcela to smash through window to a waiting limousine, while Ernesto and Maria shoot their way to Ernesto’s helicopter.

In other words, think of a Western soap opera, then imagine that all concerns about suspension of disbelief and overacting have been not merely removed, but destroyed with a flamethrower, and you get some idea of what you’re in for.

So how does Pasion do it? Start with the playbooks. Each one has a set of props which you can choose from to help add flavour to your character. This simple decision makes it easy to see what the character is about. My character Ernesto was essentially built from those props: an eyepatch, a scarily large knife and a huge mansion. More standard for PBTA are the moves and the relationships – though these are very good, and further reinforce the character type and the themes of the game. Most fun of all is your character’s question; as long as you can answer yes to it, you get +1 to all your rolls. Examples are “are you taking control of this situation?” and “are you the centre of attention?”. Wonderful stuff.

Then there’s the basic moves, which are glorious in at least two ways. The first is the obvious, usual way that a well-crafted PBTA game does it, which is simply to point each move at the things you want the game to be about, in this case things like declaring your love for someone, accusing someone of lying, processing your feelings out loud and other such excellent stuff. But the one I’d like to dwell on is the way that stats work in Pasion. The way it works is: there aren’t any. Instead, each move has two questions attached. For each one you can answer yes to, you get +1 to the roll (plus of course your playbook question, which can add a further +1). The questions are things like “are you doing this for love?”, “are you doing this for vengeance?”, and suchlike. So not only are the moves themselves pointing you at the right sort of drama, you’re incentivised each and every roll to conduct that drama, and even shape your character’s motivations, in an in-genre way.

I’ll also mention flashbacks – only briefly, because we didn’t actually use them all that much, though I think they have a lot of potential. Pasion has a flashback move similar to what’s used in Leverage and Blades in the Dark. You can use it, just like in those games, to retroactively declare you have stuff set up to be prepared for whatever situation you’re in. But more interestingly, you can use it to reveal secrets about other characters, and have it be true, right in the middle of a scene. I wish I’d noticed this mechanic earlier on in the game because I’m sure this would be a lot of fun.

Finally there’s a wonderful little mechanic reminiscent of World-Wide Wrestling where – during other characters’ scenes – you get to play the audience watching the show at home, and during your own scenes you earn XP from their reactions. It’s a lot of fun.

I was super-impressed with Pasion de las Pasiones. If soap opera drama on steroids appeals to you then I’d seriously recommend it. You can buy it here.

Indie games aren’t all about narrative

I hear a lot of people saying that indie games are more focused on narrative or story. This is said in implicit (or explicit) contrast with traditional games, which are more… I don’t know… gamey? It often flows from the said people having read and (IMO) misunderstood GNS theory. So here’s the thing: it isn’t true. Or at least, it’s an extremely partial view of the indie market.

Let’s start with those last two words – indie market. I use them advisedly: “indie” isn’t a design school or a brand. It’s just stuff that’s independently published, meaning creator-owned. So indie games includes some stuff which is part of the OSR, or “trad” gaming. Yes, there’s some definite trends visible in the indie market that are different from those in the mainstream market, and so it’s not entirely unjustified to talk about “indie design”. The point is, #notallindiegames, let’s not pretend they’re all the same.

With that said, there is definitely a chunk of the indie games market that could be justly called “games focused on narrative”. My own game (with Becky Annison) Lovecraftesque fits into this part of the market. It aims to emulate the structure of a Lovecraftian tale, and it bakes that structure directly into the rules of the game, at the level of the scene. The rules literally require you to play through a series of scenes in which clues are gradually revealed, before playing through a rapidly accelerating scary sequence, followed by a terrifying finale. Similarly Fiasco has story structure baked into it. There’s plenty more where they came from. These games have “story” in their bones, and you know when you play them, at a high level, what kind of story you’re going to tell.

But a lot of indie games that are not at all like this still get painted with the “narrative” brush. A prime example is the Himalayan range of indie game design, PBTA, and that’s what I’m going to focus on now- though I think it’s true of wider indie design.

PBTA (well, most PBTA anyway) does not at all do anything to bake narrative structure into the game, except perhaps at the very high level of the GM’s prep. In fact PBTA is, to my eye, extremely similar in structure to more traditional games: each player focuses on one character, using their abilities and skills as the main mechanical interface with the world, but also interacting with it through straightforwardly roleplaying a character, with outcomes adjudicated in a fairly freeform way by a GM. Yes, there are differences – what is traditionally regarded as GM advice is baked into the rules, each player skill/ability has its own custom rule, and so forth – but at a structural level it isn’t really that different from (say) D&D.

The point is, “the story” is something that only exists after the fact. You play the game, you play your character, the GM describes the world and plays their NPCs, and only after you’ve done that can you look back and say what the story was. Just like traditional games. There’s no “narrative” in this narrative game, or no more than any other RPG.

So why does PBTA often get described as being a narrative game? I mean, partly it’s a branding thing. It’s part of the “story games” movement, which is strongly identified with “narrativism”. It’s probably partly because the rules of a PBTA game engage directly with the “fiction”, and are typically designed to never be more than one step away from re-engaging with “the fiction”, either.

But “the fiction” isn’t story. The fiction is just the game world, from the places in that world, through to the characters, the situations they find themselves in, the minute details of their exact position as described by the words you speak at the table. A character walks into a bar, two pistols cocked, and challenges the bartender to a duel: that’s the fiction. That character is standing next to a honky-tonk piano as she does it: that’s also the fiction. The honky-tonk is playing “baby elephant walking” and its middle C is slightly flat: also the fiction. None of this is story per se. None of it would be out of place in a traditional RPG. And probably this character will next roll to taunt or manipulate or intimidate the bartender, and possibly later to shoot at him with those pistols, and that will all be mechanically fairly similar to what happens in a traditional game. And again, not story.

I think it all comes back to the decision to describe one of the three prongs of GNS as “narrativism” or “story now”. Narrativism isn’t (as I see it) about focusing on “the story”. It’s about playing to engage with human issues, in such a way that it’s more likely to make a compelling story. But “the story” per se still arises from micro decisions that you make during the game. “Story now” is so called because you get straight to the interesting bits of a story, not because you in some sense consciously try to generate a story. I’m aware that like everyone else I’m no doubt misinterpreting goddamn GNS; but no RPG theory article is complete without that, is it? The point is, narrativism isn’t about turning roleplaying into story writing, and by the way (most) indie games are mostly not especially narrativist except to the extent that they empower you to play that way if you want to.

So what? Isn’t this just a tedious argument about semantics? Probably at some level it is. But I think probably some of the holy wars of the roleplaying community – the imagined conflict between OSR and indie and trad, for instance – are rooted in these wrongheaded ideas about indie. And I think the idea that indie games are “about story” makes them seem kind of intimidating and highfalutin to players who are used to D&D. The truth is, they are different from traditional RPGs. They do play differently – otherwise they would be the same game. But they aren’t a fundamentally different “story-focused” thing, so if you’ve heard tales of scary story games, those tales are wide of the mark. Maybe it’s worth giving them a try.

Flotsam is live on Kickstarter!

I’m excited to announce that Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars is now live on Kickstarter! Thankyou for all the support and encouragement you’ve given to the project so far.

The project is here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/blackarmada/flotsam-adrift-amongst-the-stars

Flotsam is a roleplaying game about outcasts, renegades and misfits living in belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. You play through their everyday lives, interpersonal relationships and small-scale drama in the Below, a dangerous world where poverty, social strife and gang conflict sit side-by-side with alien technology and supernatural weirdness.

Imagine the Belters of the Expanse watching as Earth and Mars shape their lives, the civilians in Battlestar Galactica living with the decisions made by the military and the folk of Downbelow in Babylon 5, abandoned to destitution and squalor by those who built the station. This game is about characters like that.

The game is GMless and diceless, with rules that point your characters at each other and bring their relationships into sharp focus. They help you create a rich setting, flawed characters, and charged relationships which develop over time. You’ll watch your characters evolve and change before your eyes. It’s really cool.

“Josh has put together something really interesting here – there’s glimpses of a larger setting through the world, but it only comes out through the lenses of the characters. Very clever stuff.” 

– Grant Howitt, co-designer of The Spire RPG

You can get Flotsam for as little as £9 / $12 for the PDF.

You can back Flotsam on Kickstarter, here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/blackarmada/flotsam-adrift-amongst-the-stars

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective (part 4)

This is part 4 in a multi-part series looking back on our RPG kickstarter, what went well, what we’d change, and so on. Part 1 is herePart 2 is here. Part 3 is here. This time, we’re talking about the quality of the product and the post-kickstarter phase.

Delivery phase – quality

Quality-wise, I couldn’t be prouder by what we achieved. The game has met with a very positive reception, including several award nominations. I continue to get a massive buzz every time I hear about people playing it. I believe it stands up in comparison to any other horror game out there.

The production values met our very high standards. The book is beautiful, filled with gorgeous art and an evocative yet readable layout, both of which mirror and reinforce the structure and themes of the game. The physical product looks and feels great.

Image of a library. A woman in a wheelchair looks over her shoulder, holding a gun at the ready. Behind her, a monstrous praying mantis lurks amongst the bookshelves.
One of the illustrations from Lovecraftesque

I also want to say here that our stretch goals massively enhanced the game. The finished stretch goal material was high quality, incredibly evocative, and provided a powerful set of diverse support materials for the game. We had one review whinge that the game itself was just a third of the book: but that really fails to recognise the benefits of these extra materials. The book has a massive 17 scenarios – you have so much choice, and they’re all so good; many people have commented that the quick-start scenarios are their favourite way to play. Plus the essays, which offer a really in-depth analysis of how to handle race and mental health in Lovecraftian games – issues which were a major focus of the campaign, and very dear to our heart. So the stretch goals were a major success for this project.

Post-kickstarter phase

Honestly, we didn’t really plan for what would happen after the kickstarter. That might seem funny given all the detailed planning described so far, but we really were focused on the campaign.

After the dust settled, we set ourselves up on Payhip, on DrivethruRPG, and (using Paypal buttons) on our own website to directly sell the game to customers. We reached out to Indie Press Revolution in the US and Esdevium in the UK, to get the books out to retailers.

All this basically worked ok. However, one thing new game designers should know is that retail distributors ask for a very hefty discount in the region of 50-55% on your product. This is because retailers ask for a 30-35% discount. I’m not being critical – retailers and distributors have costs to meet and presumably try to make a profit too. It can be pretty tricky to make any money on sales to retailers if you haven’t factored this into your planning – which we hadn’t. At one point we realised that we would make a loss on US retail sales, and had to make some changes to keep this viable. It would have been better if we’d planned that in advance – and it’s another reason why a print run would probably have been a better choice for us, since we’ve sold hundreds of books this way, many at a negligible profit margin. We’re glad to support retailers, and have the books out there, but next time we’ll do better out of it too.

I’ll also mention accounting. Once you make money, you’re going to have to report it to the authorities. In the UK that means submitting accounts and a self-assessment tax return to HM Revenue and Customs. This is a faff. Even if you pay someone to do it, in practice you will do a lot of work. If you pay someone, it will cost you, and probably more than you think. Just, you know. Think about that, and plan time and money around it.

Just for fun, here’s a graph of our sales during and after the kickstarter. It includes PDFs, but is I estimate over 80% physical copies. You can see that retailer sales are a large share of post-kickstarter sales, which makes my earlier remarks about planning for those even more salient.

Graph of our sales during and after the kickstarter

 

Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars – kickstarter in July

I’ve been working hard to get Flotsam ready for kickstarter, and it looks like it’ll be ready to launch some time in July.

Flotsam is a game for 3-5 people about outcasts, renegades and misfits living in the belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. You focus on their everyday lives, their relationships and small-scale, interpersonal drama.

You could play:

The cast-off, an ordinary person fallen on bad times;

The Thunder, a tough ganger who makes the rules down here;

The Voice, the charismatic leader of a cult or community;

The Spider, a ruthless trader or spymaster;

The Sybyl, a prophetess with uncanny powers; or

The Hybrid, part human and part something else (alien, AI, god… there are lots of options).

The game is GMless: Each player gets one Primary character to play, as well as one Situation that they help to develop and push forward when not playing their Primary. That can be a lot to juggle, so the game has a simple, streamlined system that’s geared towards giving each player maximum control over the pacing of their own scenes, so you can have quiet, tense emotional scenes when you want them, or high-energy, threatening scenes when you feel like hitting the gas.

The game’s system pushes you to focus on your relationships and personal flaws, to move your character out of their comfort zone and develop them. Over time you’ll see those relationships and flaws change, and your characters grow. As such, it’s designed to work best in campaign mode. Over a handful of sessions, you’ll get to see real evolution of your character and their relationships.

Nonetheless, I wanted the game to be playable as a one-shot, so the game will include rules for quick-start play, using simple scenarios with pre-generated characters and situations. These will be designed to kickstart play with relationships that are already on the point of change, and problems at the point of exploding. It’ll mean you can play the game in 3-4 hours.

I’m excited to share the game with you! If you’re interested in this project you might want to follow the Black Armada kickstarter account here, so you’ll get a notification when the campaign launches. If you have questions or would like to talk to me about the project, you can comment here or contact me at flotsam (at) vapourspace (dot) net.

Finally, I couldn’t end this article without sharing the work-in-progress cover art by Anna Landin. It’s only a sketch and it’s already looking great! Honestly, commissioning art is one of my favourite things about being a game designer.

Four people stand around a makeshift table converted from a piece of industrial machinery. One of them leans forward, entreating another, who watches with interest. In the background we can see a round window, through which is stars and space, and a spaceship flying by.
OMG I love this sketch