Designer Diary: Down the Rabbit Hole

So, Frax and I are working on a new game. We want to create a game about characters who cross over from the mundane world into a strange world of gods and faeries, or secret masters and conspiracies, or maybe magi and vampires… you get the idea. Universes like Neverwhere, Sandman, or the World of Darkness, Nobilis, Immortal, the X Files, all fit into this broad category.

But we’ve had some bad experiences with games like that. Playing those sorts of games, we’ve often found we were stumbling around, not understanding how the world worked, and outmatched and manipulated by NPCs with vast powers and vaster influence. Running them, we found that we would be required to invest hours of time creating the giant conspiracy or sprawling nether world, to make it coherent and consistent and to be always on top of the complicated, interrelated facts when the players began poking around at the tapestry we had woven. Of course, the two feed each other: all that effort means the game has to be about what we the GM have created, not about the players.

We want a game that delivers the conspiracy game experience: mystery, confusion, complicated weird shit – while avoiding these pitfalls. Beyond that, we want a game that focuses on the characters and their personal journeys from naive and sceptical ingenue to being a part of the world beyond the veil, and even masters of it.

So this is the first in a series of designer diaries about the game. It isn’t a finished product – we’re designing it as we go. Some bits remain to be defined, and some bits will probably change. So without further ado…

Aim of design: To create a game in which ordinary people go down the rabbit hole into a mysterious world to which they are naïve and vulnerable, without (a) the players feeling like mere pawns, (b) a huge burden on the GM to create and drip feed the secret world to the players, and with (c) a focus on character development and how the characters come to terms with the mysterious world. The system will support these design aims.

From novice to master

The players move through a series of stages akin to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). They begin with sceptical disbelief and slowly move towards integrating themselves into the mysterious world and becoming movers and shakers in that world. (Perhaps there will be an option to return to the normal world instead – but this would retire your character.)

The players are incentivised to move through each stage because every time they move through a stage they gain new supernatural powers and/or increase the strength of their existing powers. (They start the game with little or no powers.)

The players are incentivised not to move through each stage too quickly because every time they reach a new stage they refresh certain energy meter(s) (health, magical power, etc) which are eroded in play. Optimal play involves wearing down your meter(s) in scenes and then transitioning to a new stage when you are at your weakest.

Note: we might need a further brake on progression so players who transition very quickly don’t get too far ahead of the pack. Or maybe we do not need this.

Designer Diary – Sacrifice and Consequences

I’m currently finishing off incorporating the feedback from the Disaster Strikes! playtest, so I can release a full draft on the website. Thanks to comments from Blackrat, I have encountered a problem with my design. It’s not a massive one, but it does need solving before the game can go live.

In Disaster Strikes!, you use playing cards in a similar way to how you would use dice in a standard roll+stat>difficulty game. However, because you’re using cards there’s a few features that you don’t get with dice. Here’s the key ones for the problem at hand:
– You can pick from multiple cards in your hand rather than just getting one result
– The face cards do something special; namely, you can play them on top of another card to provide a bonus
– But if you do play a face card, you get negative consequences determined by the GM
– The suit of the card you play suggests a particular mode of action (planning, execution, inspiration or sacrifice), and you get a bonus if you can describe an action that fits that mode of action
– If you play a sacrifice (spades) card then you get a negative consequence determined by the GM

Here’s the problem. To get the bonus for a sacrifice card, you have to describe an action that costs you. But you are also supposed to get a negative consequence determined by the GM. That’s two negative consequences! Rather a lot for one card.

Now, I could just say that the consequence narrated by the player to get their bonus is instead of the consequence determined by the GM. But that duplicates another mechanic, which is that if you play a face card in your character’s personal trump suit, you get to decide the consequences, instead of the GM. With your trump suit you can choose a positive consequence instead of a negative consequence, so they are different. But it feels like a spades card should  be more like a non-trump face card. It should hurt to get one.

Alternatively, I could say that you get the bonus for appropriate description whenever you play a spades card, without needing to describe anything – instead it’s a trade-off for the GM-determined consequence.

Am I making too much of this? Anyone have any other ideas about how to fixenate it?

Designer Diary: Quick Draw

I ran Disaster Strikes! at Furnace last weekend, and it was pretty successful. I used a new mechanic for the first time – the disaster pool. But before I can explain how that went, I need to talk about Quick Draw, the conflict resolution system I’ve been using for DS!

We at Black Armada have been planning to release a “generic” conflict resolution system which we can use with our games, and QD is our first attempt at this. It’s still somewhat in development, but I’ve been testing it with DS! because it seems to fit the game pretty well.

QD works in a similar way to many conflict resolution systems in that you say what you’re trying to achieve, identify the stakes of the conflict (i.e. what happens when you win, what happens if you lose), work out which of your character’s stats apply and then set a difficulty number. In most games you’d then go to the dice, but as the name implies, QD uses cards instead.

The player who is taking the action draws 3 cards, and the GM (so far it’s only been used with games that have a GM) draws 1 card. The player reveals his best card and adds it to whatever stats are in use, while the GM reveals her card and adds it to the difficulty number. High number wins, player wins ties.

What makes the system interesting is how face cards are handled. Forgetting Aces for the moment (Aces are special), face cards count as 5-point cards for purposes of working out the results of a draw. However, face cards can be played after other cards have been revealed as described above, to add a +5 bonus to the player’s side. Naturally, having a face card dramatically increases your chance of success.

However, in addition, playing a face card generates a consequence of some kind. The consequence is usually decided by the GM, and is generally something that the character on the receiving end will not like. It’s against the rules to overturn the outcome of the card draw (i.e. the stakes as agreed above), so consequences tend to mean a new event of some kind, which might or might not be related to the current action. Kind of like Leverage, this means that conflicts often generate spiralling sets of complications.

For DS! this is a nice property for a system to have, because it reinforces the sense that the disaster is raging out of control. The GM can use complications to activate aspects of the disaster in an unpredictable way, so that a seemingly straightforward challenge can turn into a cascade of pain. The Furnace session saw the protagonists hurdling rivers of fire only to be struck by an out-of-control rollercoaster train with a zombie on it, carried by the momentum to the ticket stands where a horde of zombies began pouring through the turnstiles, and so on.

The downside, though, is that it’s a lot of work for the GM to come up with consequences. When the players are firing on all cylinders as well, this isn’t too bad – the GM can take suggestions and avoid running out of ideas. But there can be fairly long moments where the GM is all “what the heck do I do now?”. This is especially a problem when multiple consequences come up in a single turn. Which happens more than you might think.

I haven’t yet figured out quite how to get around this problem. Maybe it isn’t a problem at all – it generates creative challenges for the group, and I don’t think I’ve ever found it literally impossible to come up with something. But I’m wondering if there’s a way to avoid breaking the action while the GM thinks of a consequence.

Next up: suits, player-generated conequences, and the disaster pool.

Bite Me! – A game of Werewolf Pack Dynamics

Update: Please note that Bite Me was renamed to Bite Marks, after the campaign closed. The game can now be pre-ordered from Backerkit.

[Taken largely from a G+ post I made a couple of weeks ago]

 I love Werewolves.

There, I said it.

I love the inner struggle of humanity against feral instinct but most of all I love the idea that Werewolves don’t have to do it alone.  They have family.  They have Pack.

Sadly, in all the years I have been role-playing, I have never played in a werewolf game.

The White Wolf systems have tended to leave me underwhelmed.  Not least because I have found that the system’s complexity gets in the way of the personal horror and community aspects of the werewolf myth that I find so compelling. In recent years my favourite treatments of the Werewolf mythology have been “Being Human” and Kelley Armstrong’s “Women of the Otherworld” series.

I have been thinking more and more that when (not if) I run a werewolf campaign it will follow much of the pack model established in Women of the Otherworld. To me the real crux of a Werewolf game should be how all the action and plot are viewed through the lens of the relationships between the Pack members and the group culture of the Pack.

 I want to build in mechanics for how loyal your character feels towards the Alpha and the Pack which will, in turn, get you some mechanical benefits but also creates plenty of space for emotional interaction and interesting conversations.

As I said before the action of the game should viewed through the lens of your relationships and the Pack.  So the example I gave to a friend recently was as follows:

Scenario: The Pack Alpha gets kidnapped.

We play through planning and executing the plan to get the Alpha back. But this should played out with plenty of intra-Pack conversations and dialogue and space for emotional interaction around the following:

a) how the Pack deals with the loss of their leader and driving force – do they fracture with no-one taking control, does another character rise up to take up the reigns of leadership, how do the pack respond to this?  Are the Pack grateful that someone has filled the vacuum or do they resist the new leadership?

b) personal distress of the characters – who feels guilty that the kidnap resulted from their failing to protect the Alpha?;

c) if the Alpha is recovered does the temporary leader want to relinquish control – does the Pack view the Alpha differently
because they were “not strong enough” to resist capture?; and

d) how will the Pack process what happened.  Will they emerge stronger as a group? Will they seek revenge?

The idea that when stuff happens you aren’t just thinking about “how do we solve the plot problem of recovering the Alpha?”, but also exploring what this means for you and your Pack.

I’d almost certainly employ Vincent Baker ‘s amazing “ask lots of questions” technique from Apocalypse World, in drawing out this aspect more heavily.

This is a further development of the way in which I run Amber Diceless – where the theme is again Family.  Everything is viewed through the lens of Family.  In Amber the family might do horrible things to each other (as per the books) but they can’t shake the fact they share a heritage and it just keeps pulling them back into each others lives.

As an aside one of things which used to fascinate me about Jerry Springer and related TV shows was the way in which people couldn’t just leave each other alone and move on with their lives.  Despite some of the terrible car crash relationships some people just didn’t seem to be able to pull themselves out of the destructive spiral they were in together and I was always intrigued as to why. Maybe I am just writing games to answer that question?

Designer Diary: Disaster Strikes! : The Doomsayer

My personal favourite mechanic from working on Disaster Strikes! is the Doomsayer, aka the Cassandra. They’re there in every disaster movie[*]. The person who repeatedly warns that everything is about to go belly up, only to be ignored until it is far too late. Charlton Heston in The Towering Inferno, Ripley in Aliens, Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak!.

DS! turns this into part of the game rules. One person has the job of being the predictor of the doom to come.

Special: Prediction. During the first Act, your protagonist makes dire predictions which will come true, but which everyone else will ignore. At any time during the first Act you may make an In Character statement pointing out a risk, a weak spot or possible threat. Your statement is true. In this way you can help foreshadow the threat and what will happen in the second and third Acts. Don’t forget to stay consistent with what’s already agreed – no fair turning the volcano into a flood, or whatever. And of course, you must not use this ability to weaken the threat – your role is to enhance it.

Note: during the first Act, nobody except the person with the above special is permitted to attend to the threat. They either fail to notice it, ignore it, discount it as not as bad as it seems, or focus on other priorities. Meanwhile the nature of the disaster will be such that if the Doomsayer tries to stop it by themselves they will certainly fail. On the plus side, the disaster is only embryonic and certainly not out-of-control at this point.

Meanwhile the DM and the players have a perfect view of what is coming – just as they would in a disaster movie. The Doomsayer is handing opportunities to the DM for dramatic situations in later Acts, and to the player to figure out how they might deal with them. Not to mention getting to take part in the creative process like no other player – apart from the DM.

In DS!, Act I is for introducing the setting, the characters and their relationships, and foreshadowing the disaster. The doomsayer plays an important role in that. The remaining specials are chiefly concerned with Act II – when the threat kicks off in earnest. More on this soon.

[*] Possible hyperbole alert. I haven’t watched all or even most disaster movies. Yet.

Designer Diary: Disaster Strikes! …and you’re Dead.

I’m currently working on a disaster movie game called Disaster Strikes!, aimed at simulating the feel of classic movies like The Towering Inferno, Volcano! and many others. The basic setup is, a small group of competent, brave and selfless individuals find themselves caught up in a major disaster, be it an earthquake, a virus outbreak or an alien attack. They must somehow escape or overcome the threat, while saving loved ones and bystanders from certain death. It’s a no-prep game that will give you the structure and tools to create an action-packed disaster in a few hours.

I’ve run a couple of playtests and will report on them soon. But for this article, I’d like to share with you a mechanic I created for the game which has really shown its worth.

See, the thing about a disaster movie is that it comes with a high mortality rate. Sure, the heroes don’t usually die, but they can do. And part of what has made the game exciting in playtests has been the uncertainty over whether the players will survive or not, and the tension created by putting yourself in harms way in order to save the lives of others. The trouble is, if you die mid-way through that kinda sucks. Fortunately I have a solution.

Special: Dead. You are dead. Bad luck! But on the plus side, once per game, at any time between now and the end of the game you can trigger a flashback scene. You can use this scene to shine a light on your character and their relationships. However, in addition, you can use this scene to give another character an item, advice, or some other resource, and they get that to use in the game, right now.

The Dead special went down very well in playtesting. It was used to pull surviving character’s fat out of the fire, proving crucial to the successful defeating of the threat in one session. As well as giving the dead player something to do, it gives them a reason to continue to pay attention to the game rather than, say, going off and playing computer games in the corner. I’m going to want to playtest it some more, as it’s obviously potentially very powerful (and in some circumstances you may be better off dead than alive) but I’ve been really pleased with it so far.

Designer Diary: House of Ill Repute

So, I’ve been working on a Fiasco playset called House of Ill Repute. It’s a Westminster politics-based game in the mold of “The thick of it”, “House of Cards” and (if you’re feeling a bit more gentle) “Yes, Minister”.

For me, Fiasco and politics go together like, I dunno, a mars bar and batter. Sure, it’s an unusual combination, strange even – but soooo delicious. Shows like “The thick of it” give a good idea of how out-of-control politicians can create explosive drama just as much as more traditional Fiasco settings.

If you’ve played Fiasco you’ll be aware that each game starts by generating a bunch of plot elements rolled on a random table: Relationships between pairs of player characters[*], locations, objects and needs. So naturally I spent quite a bit of time creating the tables. But quite early on I realised that the standard set just weren’t going to cut it.

Image by Elessar91

Specifically, politics is event-driven. To create a really exciting political game you need some awe-inspiring political events that will drive the characters into action. The scandals, the diplomatic disasters, international crises, and so forth. I had to have an events table right there at setup.

Fortunately for me, Westminster politics also features a fairly limited set of locations. Whitehall, Parliament, Fleet Street (no longer exists as the hub of press power, but meh – it obviously does in roleplaying games). There’s doubtless going to be meetups in London restaurants, on the river banks or whatever, but the locations just aren’t as important in this setting.

Therefore, the locations table was dumped, and replaced with the events table. Now all I had to do was come up with six sets of six interesting political events. Not a problem! If anything, the issue is to keep the numbers down, and keep them general enough that there’s still room for creativity around them.

The events table contains national celebrations like a royal wedding, international disasters like an earthquake in China, domestic headline makers like Snowmaggedon, and political bread and butter like Prime Minister’s Questions.

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

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


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

– Exceptional Role-Playing from all the Players…check

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

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


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


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


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


Less is more.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Designer Diary: When the Dark Is Gone – Concept

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

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

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

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

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

But what happened next?

What happens when the dark is gone?

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

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

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

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

How does this fulfil my goals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right that was a much longer post.

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

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

Designer Diary: When the Dark is Gone.

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

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


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

What am I missing?…a good cry.

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

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

Well – I love a challenge 🙂

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for my solution…

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

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