Wherin I Heap Love Upon Blades in the Dark

After reading Austin Walker‘s comments over the weekend (read the whole thread), I dipped back into the tabletop RPG Blades in the Dark. Reading the game, I was struck again at what a fabulous accomplishment it is. Every page and section makes me want to play the game.

As Walker indicates, each chapter has Questions to Consider, and the entire text of the game does a great job of drawing back the curtain regarding how the game fits together. The creator John Harper invites the reader to step up to become a co-designer of Blades in the Dark as they’ll play it. Everyone’s version of a given game is different, and Harper doesn’t shy away from that reality.

You might have heard me talk about Blades before, as I got in on the game early in the Kickstarter and have been a vocal fan ever since even though I haven’t gotten to play the game yet.

Blades in the Dark is set in an industrial fantasy city called Duskvol, a trade city in a world that suffered a magical apocalypse a thousand years ago. That event shattered the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead and now the known world is ruled by an immortal emperor and cities are protected from hungry spirits roaming free across the world by giant magitek electrical fences. The tone and flavor of the setting are conveyed throughout the core book, with hooks abounding and a clear manifestation of the default grim tone of the setting in the writing. The game is designed not just for telling the tales of daring scoundrels, it’s designed for telling tales of daring scoundrels *in this particular world*. It’s very much gothic dark fantasy ala the Dishonored and Thief video games (both specifically invoked as inspirations for Blades).

I prefer more optimistic worlds and games, especially these days (*waves to 2017*), so I’m also excited for the Broken Crown, a playset about trying to take down the Immortal Emperor, and other alternate setting playsets. Especially Null Vector, the cyberpunk playset. Blades is an amazing game for Cyberpunk because Blades is designed to drastically reduce the amount of planning a group has to do for heists. I have a sad memory of spending over two hours arguing with a game group about how to pull off a kidnapping in Shadowrun, and in Blades that conversation would have been five minutes deciding which general approach to take and then we’d have gotten right into the action.

Thinking back to the way tone informs the design, I’m hoping to see these playsets to adjust the mechanics in order to convey the setting’s tone. If they don’t, I’ll need to do it myself, but I’m hoping that the transparency of how the tone is built into the design means that a change in setting comes with an adjustment in the design tone.

I have spent more than a little time thinking about how I’d hack Blades in the Dark to make a Shield and Crocus RPG. I even have a working title: War in the Bones.

Fun Side Notes

  • The game’s publisher, Evil Hat Productions, has given an open invitation to designers who intend to make hacks of Blades in the Dark (new games using the system/design) to submit to them. This is likely to help foster a new family of RPGs the way that Apocalypse World became a games lineage with games like Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week, etc. Blades is heavily informed by Apocalypse World but is, IMO, a full iteration forward compared to the above hacks.
  • I love that hacks of Blades in the Dark are called “Forged in the Dark” like Apocalypse World hacks are “Powered by the Apocalypse.”

I don’t get to play nearly as many RPGs as I want or even as much as I did before I started working at Angry Robot, but I still love delving into new games to see where the discipline of RPG design is headed. Anyone similarly interested needs to be following Blades in the Dark.

Giant Spiders, the Action Economy, and Your Game

Last session, my D&D party had a great RP-driven evening, having just survived a huge throwdown with a fiend-controlled Arch-druid, a humongo spider, and a zillion spiderlings.

That fight is what I wanted to talk about today. I really like 5e’s Legendary action system. I think it’s a great way to address the primacy of action economy in the game.

What’s an action economy?

It’s the idea that in a tactical combat game, having more actions is a huge advantage. In earlier versions of D&D, a 5-person party vs. a dragon instantly had the advantage if the dragon only got one action per round, even if they got claw/claw/bite.

In the recent X-Com games, you want to get the upgrade that lets you bring a fifth squad member into missions as soon as possible, as it gives you more actions per turn. Having a fifth person is an advantage aside from that, but what I want to focus on right now is the actions. Who has them, how many, and when?

In this case, the spider got a Legendary Action (mostly webbing and biting) and the Lair Actions involved birthing new spiders to throw at us (ala spawning mobs/adds in a raid).

The Legendary/Lair Actions made the combat feel much less in our control, systematized the rate of new monsters coming in, and made the boss feel like a Boss.

The last boss we fought before the spider was a powerful necromancer who had been built up over several sessions as A Big Deal. But then, our party totally overwhelmed him, esp. thanks to our Smite-tastic vengeance Paladin and having several spell-casters who could counter-spell and use Dispel Magic. Even with undead minions around, the necromancer just didn’t have the opportunity to really put the pressure on us or keep away from our DPS. Legendary Actions would have changed that a lot. They become less special if every notable enemy has them, but maybe that’s okay?

The Ruler Reactions in the X-Com 2 expansion are a similar system, whereby the Ruler characters (special unique bosses) get a Ruler Reaction after every one of your characters acts. This means they can move around, punish characters that move out into the open, etc. Being able to interrupt and/or act out of turn is a *huge* tactical asset in turn-based games. The Chosen characters in the War of the Chosen expansion don’t get Ruler Reactions, but they do have a large # of actions per turn, allowing them to move in, attack, and then retreat to cover, etc. Some of your characters get similar bonus actions, especially the Skirmisher. Having all of those active at once could get tricky, but it re-shapes the flow of play, making it far less a game of big chunks of “my turn, their turn” and much more of a fast-paced thrust/parry/riposte kind of game.

Anyone else been playing D&D with Legendary/Lair Actions or have stories of Rulers/Chosen from X-Com to share? Or other games that use the same kind of systems?

 

Solipsism and Celebrities

  • The 80s saw, for example: Call of Cthulhu (81), Paranoia (84), Ars Magica (87), d6 Star Wars (87), Cyberpunk 2013 (88), Shadowrun (89).
  • The 90s brings the World of Darkness, Torg, Amber, Underground, Blue Planet, 7th Sea, Aberrant
  • In the 2000s you get the Forge/Story Games movement (Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, etc.), D&D 3.0, the OGL, etc.
  • And in the 2010s we have Apocalypse World and Powered by the Apocalypse games, RPG Kickstarters, Tons of anniversary editions of old RPGs (WoD 20th anniversary editions, 7th Sea 2.0, etc.), Pathfinder’s rise, D&D 5e, Critical Role, Roll20, etc.

Where’s the stagnation in there? I see mechanical innovation, troupe play, bridging across to other genre influences, acting techniques, roleplay theory, scene framing, etc.. And that was just a short thread overview of a way more complicated and nuanced tradition.

It’s okay to say “I got bored with RPGs, but since video games have become so much their own thing, I got excited about RPGs again.”

It’s also sensible to say that technological innovation with streaming and podcasts enabled RPGs to become an outward-facing art form and that Podcasts of Acquisitions, Inc. PAX events, and streaming games like Critical Role turned small group experiences into shared experiences. Yeah, for sure. You don’t get The Adventure Zone or Friends at the Table being A Thing without the rise of podcasts.

Roll20, Skype, & other systems let people re-connect with childhood friends to play across a continent or play w/people they’ve never met. *Raises hand* That’s me. Playing a Roll20 D&D game with old SCA friends and their friends.

There was this trend in confessional gamer memoirs in the 2000s where the white male gamer waxes rhapsodic about loving RPGs as a kid, about how it was this secret only he and his friends knew about and appreciated. But then he “discovered” girls, went to college, and/or “grew up” and cast RPGs aside, only to re-discover his love for them later, returning not just with nostalgia, but with renewed appreciation. Harmon’s bit seems like this, but probably across a different life path. It’s okay to have left and come back, but RPGS were always here.

WoD (World of DarknesS) and esp. Mind’s Eye Theater enabled women to claim space in RPGing that had been largely denied. Women & people from other marginalized populations/identities have always played RPGs, but World of Darkness and its LARPs were a major vector by which even more people got into RPGs, continuing to shift the balance away from the straight white male perceived monolith.

Yes, this is a golden age of RPGing, but it’s not because of video games. Video games & Tabletop RPGs have evolved in tandem, borrowing back and forth from one another, but tabletop is not a symbiote thriving only because of video games.

Do better, Dan Harmon. Like it or not, you’re seen as a major name in RPGs now because of HarmonQuest. Do right by the community people see you as representing. You need to roll better on your Save vs. Be That Guy.

P.S. Shout-out to SF writer John Appel for strong contributions to this original twitter thread.

Viva La Wavolucion

I’ve found my way onto Google Wave and am very excited about its potential as a communication/collaboration tool, especially for geeky things.  And by this I’m mostly talking about Role-Playing Games.

Not much of this blog’s content ends up being about RPGs, despite the fact that my M.A. thesis was on tabletop RPGs and I’ve been playing/following RPGs since I was in fourth grade.

Like any new communication technology, one of the first things that people have done with Google Wave, aside from making porn (I can only guess, based upon the general adage) is to see if you can use to it game.  Because when your early adopter set is pretty much geeks, one of the things they’re likely to do when exploring a new technology is get it to roll dice so we can play exciting games of make-believe with our friends.  It’s what we do.

There have been a number of different exploratory attempts along these lines, and I’ll try to create a short round-up here before moving into actual discussion/analysis:

Futurismic

Ars Technica

Game Playwright

The emerging thought is that while Google Wave is in its infancy, its official utility/intended utility is very much up in the air.  The Futurismic post’s title is a paraphrase of Neuromancer, stating “the geek finds its own uses for things.” Much like how Wired commented on how Twitter’s ‘real use’ was decided by its users, Google Wave is being investigated for its various potentials, and Geek communities are pursuing explorations and trails of the technology as a strong next step/sideways development for roleplaying games as collaborative storytelling.

The idea put forward by the Game Playwrights is one of the most interesting, and the one I’ll ruminate upon further.  Using a Google Wave as a persistent artifact of play changes the textual status that of RPGs.  A tabletop RPG doesn’t leave an artifact of play, nor does a LARP.  Each of those could be recorded, by video or audio, but would not represent a polished or total account of the story, instead showing a very fractured account.  But if Google Wave games (or Waveltop, as some are calling them) move towards the ‘script of play’ model that Will Hindmarch of Game Playwrights is suggesting, we may see a move towards RPGs leaving behind readable texts, and this is for me, a very interesting move.

There is certainly already discussion of games past in the RPG community.  From ‘let me tell you about my character’ to game stories like The Gazebo or group-specific stories about how one player is deep in character, using a special voice and cadence, embodying his motions, and saying with a sweeping motion, “Allow me to introduce my cousin”, gesturing to the player of the ‘cousin’ who is in fact…asleep on the couch.  But even the actual play reports lauded in the Forge community among others are less direct than the ‘Wave as script of play’ idea.

If Wave players are using this script of play as their primary narrative reference but are also constructing it in a way that reads like a story/script, this, for me, would make it infinitely easier for players to read about and engage with one another’s stories in a way more consistent with films, television, novels, etc.

Different versions of one module could be combined and sold alongside a module (Buy Keep on the Borderlands, complete with game scripts by the Penny Arcade/PvP teams as well as three other star teams), and moreover, there would be room for groups to emerge as stars/paragons of RPG writing/play moreso than already exists (the stars such as they are tend to be specific game designers, known as designers more than being known as players)  We may even see a re-figuration of the RPG novel.  Could it be that once developed, people would pay to read the polished game texts of well-reputed RPG groups published as e-books/pdfs?  It’s a very different way of monetizing the efforts of role-players, like but rather unlike the efforts of the gaming group who decided their superhero game was taking too much time away from writing and decided to do the Wild Cards anthology novels.

And of course, this need not be monetized, nor is it inevitably going to become monetized.  However, in these early explorations, it’s not hard to see the varied ways that this technology could serve as a breakthrough tool for roleplayers to engage with one another.  It is of course notable that the role-playing done via Google Wave is a notable offshoot of tabletop play, since it will not convey any degree of embodied performance, instead relying on writing as performance,  At least until someone pushes the technology even further and weaves together audio play to cohesive uninterrupted narratives.  (There are a number of podcasts/records of play that take the raw audio of a RPG session and distribute it, but again as said before and restated, the main appeal of Google Wave is the ease with which it allows a seamless narrative text which is both a part of play and a readable artifact that results from play.

I’m hoping to take part in some of this exploration myself, and will comment on that as I can.