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?

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

13 thoughts to “Designer Diary – Sacrifice and Consequences”

  1. Perhaps in the case of a spade, the face-card consequence that the GM dishes out should take a different form, eg. it undercuts your narrated sacrifice in some way?

  2. Am I right in inferring the spades-bonus thing happens only when extra face cards are played, and therefore this double-consequence situation occurs *always* rather than sometimes?

    Because if so doesn’t that mean Mo’s suggestion will *always* apply? Which might risk making the sacrifices kinda empty. I think they should mostly be quite important and powerful moments, not undercut most (or all!) of the time.

    Apologies if I’ve misunderstood, though.

    Personally I think “the consequence narrated by the player to get their bonus is instead of the consequence determined by the GM” is a great solution. It allows the player some creative control, and specifically over things that are going *against* them, which is always fun. They’ll be incentivised to make the negative consequences meaningful, because it makes their sacrifice meaningful – so I don’t think you’re losing anything.

    That’s assuming that the players’ goal is to narrate dramatic stuff, though. If their goal is just to try and win (and the GM’s goal to throw obstacles), then that might not work so well.

    To spice it up, perhaps you could allow the players to narrate their sacrifice, but the GM makes a note and has it come back to bite them at some later point? That’s still effectively the double-consequence, though, just time-delayed.

    Sorry, bit rambly. I think you need to decide whether you want the double-consequence thing to Always, Sometimes or Never happen. That will inform the way you resolve this problem.

    1. So, as it stands the mechanic is that you get a GM consequence if you play a spade or a face card. You only get a personal sacrifice if you choose to narrate one when you play a spade, and if you do then you receive a bonus.

      So Mo’s solution would always be applicable if a player took up the bonus.


    2. Also: the game is fairly victory-focused. I’m not sure how to incentivise the player to make a meaningful sacrifice rather than a token one, other than DM approval.

      There is a similarish mechanic whereby a player can narrate disaster foreshadowing and receive a bonus if the DM uses the thing they foreshadowed later on. Maybe I could go a similar route here?

      1. So, a thought. If you describe an action that costs you with a played spades card, you get a bonus. The GM is then entitled to use that against you. If she does, you get a further bonus.

  3. That sounds sensible to me, if double-bonus isn’t going to be too strong. (Shouldn’t think it would be given they’ve had to make a sacrifice in order to get it.)

    “Also: the game is fairly victory-focused. I’m not sure how to incentivise the player to make a meaningful sacrifice rather than a token one”

    Is it *deliberately* victory-focussed? If so, why do you *want* players to be voluntarily making sacrifices? It seems to me that those two are at odds.

    1. Nick: it’s to do with having rich, evocative and varied description, not to mention being genre-appropriate. But the players are never asked to make sacrifices without a benefit in turn. A large part of the “winning” is in saving others, so sacrificing something yourself needn’t play against that.

      Actually I think the biggest problem is I was thinking the second “bonus” would be a disaster pool token, which is a sort of stored bonus that anyone can use. The trouble is that the disaster pool can run out, and if it does it is never replenished. Meaning that just when the shit is really hitting the fan, you’d be incentivised not to self-sacrifice for the greater good – which is pretty much the opposite of the desired result. I’ll have to think about whether there’s a way around this.

      1. Ok, so I’ve ended up with this. If you play a Spades card, you can describe how your action costs you. The DM may use your described sacrifice against you, and if she does, you get a +2 bonus (higher than the bonus you get for appropriate description with the other suits).

        When you play a spades card (regardless of whether you describe a sacrifice or are awarded a bonus), you *lose* a disaster pool token. The result of this is that you have a slightly higher incentive to play a spades card once the disaster pool has been exhausted, which fits with the overall of theme of “when the shit hits the fan, pull out the stops”.

  4. Mm, I like the sound of that as a fix. Seems narratively in keeping while preserving what you can of the sort of player decision that applies in the other cases.

    Also, yes, what Nick said about the tension between victory and voluntary sacrifice. My own feeling is that a narrow victory, eg. one achieved while making sacrifices, is more ‘valuable’ than a straightforward one. If you agree, can that be reflected somehow?

  5. > A large part of the “winning” is in saving others, so sacrificing something yourself needn’t play against that.

    Sure, but the question we were trying to answer is: Do people have an incentive to narrate a genuine meaningful sacrifice rather than a token one? So my corollary question is: Well, how does this compare with the tone of the rest of your game? Does the rest of the game encourage meaningful dramatic narration, or just playing to win and narrating whatever allows that? Because I think that will affect how the rules are interpreted in the case of the first question.

    I like your conclusion, btw – the above question may no longer be relevant, I just wanted to clarify what I was asking.

    1. With the rest of the game you’re encouraged to narrate interesting actions but the incentive is weaker because the narration is essentially cost-free. Incidentally, there’s limited scope for winning per se- much of the game is about rescuing bystanders from danger, while the final “win” is to escape alive. So there’s multiple ways to “win”, and sacrificing yourself to save others is one such.

  6. Yeah, I think we’re getting distracted by the word “win”. From what you’re saying, it sounds like the game is not about can-you-make-the-best-tactical-choices but rather about what-are-you-prepared-to-sacrifice-to-save-the-bystanders. And as a result, I don’t think “winning” really comes into it – especially as there’s not a clear-cut win condition.

    Given that, the tone sounds very much like it supports meaningful sacrifice for its own sake – in which case I don’t think you need to incentivise it any further necessarily.

    1. I dunno. I’d say it’s a mix. Ron Edwards would probably say it’s incoherent. Basically the stakes are around the survival of your Protagonists and the Bystanders who are threatened by the disaster. At any given time the issue at hand might be can you survive, can you save these bystanders or what are you willing to sacrifice to save yourself/these bystanders. You usually have an option to sacrifice the future to save the present (through spending disaster pool tokens, which gives you a bonus now in exchange for hastening the onset of the disaster or, at least, using up opportunities to get such bonuses in future), but in general you probably won’t spend many of these at once, so I’m not sure it really qualifies as a major sacrifice mechanic at the margin.

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