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.

Flotsam is available for pre-order

If you missed the Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars Kickstarter, you can now get in on the action by Pre-ordering on Backerkit.

Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars is a roleplaying game about outcasts, renegades and misfits living in the 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.

Pre-order Flotsam Now



Bite Me! is coming to Kickstarter – Get on the Mailing List Here!

The Bite Me! Kickstarter is getting closer and closer, practically snapping at our heels over here at Black Armada.

Bite Me! is a Powered by the Apocalypse Game of werewolf packs and it is a full throated emotional howl into these cold Winter nights.

If you want to know the instant the kickstarter emerges naked and bloody into the world then sign up to our mailing list here:

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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

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

Artist wanted

Hi everyone! I’m planning to kickstart my roleplaying game Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars in the nearish future, and am looking for artists (recommendations / expressions of interest). Women, LGBTQ, non-binary, PoC and artists with disabilities all expressly encouraged to apply.

What sort of thing am I looking for? Well:
– The focal characters are “outcasts, renegades and misfits” and the game focuses on their relationships, so I want scenes of social interactions, intense and emotional through to nuanced and understated.
– I want to capture a feel of riotous cultural diversity – imagined religions, ethnicities, castes, and so forth. Mostly human, but there should be some obviously non-human characters too. (It’s fine to draw on real-world cultures for inspiration, but I strongly want to avoid creating cultures that look like exoticised versions of real-world cultures.)
– The game is set in a community that lives in the dark and overlooked underbelly of a space station. I’d like to see scenes that show we’re in space, but not (much) vast spacescapes – it’s in the space station, not around it.
– The game is set in space, so there will be tech. But that could vary from 21c-like through to advanced stuff, alien tech etc. The emphasis is on the people, not the technology.
– There will be gods, spirits, demons and other mysterious (e.g. magic and psi) stuff but again, emphasis on people rather than cool weird shit.
– I want to see the same mix of faces you’d see in a cosmopolitan city. There will be people of all gender expressions, diverse romantic relationships, faces and skin tones that could be seen in all different parts of our own world, differently able people (with and without cool prosthetics)

I’d be initially looking to commission a cover image, and perhaps one or two internal images, to showcase on the kickstarter campaign page. Subject to successful funding, there would be potential for much more.

If the above sounds like you, or if you know someone who could do that, I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to see samples of your work – link to e.g. deviantart is fine, or if you prefer drop me an email via the contact form and we can talk there.

Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars – playtesting

I’ve just completed a full version of Flotsam for external playtesting!

Flotsam is a roleplaying game about outcasts, misfits and renegades living in the belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. The focus of the game is on interpersonal relationships and the day-to-day lives and struggles of a community that lacks the basic structures of civilisation.

System-wise, it was originally a Dream Askew hack, but has wandered a great deal from those roots. It owes quite a bit to Hillfolk and Archipelago, too. Everyone gets to act like a GM some of the time, controlling one aspect of the game setting and the threats it contains, and everyone gets to play a Primary character some of the time, exploring their life and relationships.

If you like the sound of that, and you think you might like to give the game a try, please get in touch by commenting here or emailling me at flotsam (at) vapourspace (dot) net.

Lovecraftesque scenario competition – winners

Lovecraftesque can be played entirely from the febrile imaginations of your group of players. However, it also has the option to use short scenarios to kickstart things with an enticing menu of inspiring elements that you throw into the bubbling cauldron of your story.

The rulebook contains a host of excellent scenarios. With our scenario competition we aimed to expand that, and we were delighted with the results: 20 varied and flavourful packs of story seeds for your group. I’d urge you to go and check them all out.

Even so, this was a competition. We anonymised the scenarios and shared them with two independent judges, Cat Tobin and Mo Holkar, and compared notes. With the coming of the solstice, we are now ready to declare some winners. Let’s start with the runners up:

Bringing New Life by Elizabeth Lovegrove. The setting for this scenario – the maternity ward of a hospital – is hardly a traditional one for a Lovecraftian tale, but instantly conjures ideas of horror. The scenario delivers on this promise.

Cold Steel by Fred Bednarski. A Nazi-occupied Polish town is the location, an evocative setting which is supported by a compelling set of steely clues.

Rare Antiquities by Oli Jeffery. Exploring the labyrinthine back-streets of Brighton, this scenario gives a pungent sense of place, and a unique set of rather sordid themes for a Lovecraftian tale.

The Huston Veil by Devon Apple. In 19th-century London, an East India Company ship returns from distant lands. We loved the way this twisted a fairly traditional Lovecraftian premise into something fresh and different.

All four runners-up are terrific scenarios. There was, however, one stand-out winner, which was unanimously selected by the judges:

The Wilder Parts of the Forest by Oli Jeffery. This was a completely unexpected concept for a Lovecraftesque scenario: Narnia. And yet, reading it you can immediately see how suited it is to creeping cosmic horror. Oli twists the elements found in a children’s fantasy story and leaves you wondering if, indeed, HPL was the secret author of the tale.

Congratulations to the winners!