Thursday, March 15, 2018

Lessons from Doskvol: Learning Blades in the Dark

This last Friday marked the 16th session of our f2f Blades in the Dark campaign. I checked in and everyone seemed on board to continue. I’ll check in again in another six sessions. We have a big table for this: six players, and over all the sessions we’ve only had a single player missing twice. Blades doesn’t feel designed for a table of six, but it works and we’ve seen characters (and the gang) evolve over arcs. In April, I begin an online Blades campaign using the Iruvia setting (and Johnstone Metzger’s new playbooks). I set that up for a dozen sessions through The Gauntlet Hangouts.

I dig Blades in the Dark but even sixteen sessions in I learn new things about the play. At its core Blades has a simple and flexible resolution mechanic. The rules offer extensive advice and examples. Notably the rules embrace that different GMs run differently, even with the same core system. BitD talks about rulings and how they affect play. A GM tunes and shades their Doskvol through choices and interpretations. I’ll repeat this phrase throughout: that can take some getting used to.

Blades has deep structures built on those simple rules. Designer John Harper has keenly crafted and developed those. Each playbook suggests new things about the setting. Mechanics like downtime and post-score resolution enrich choices. I’ve found Blades easy to learn, but challenging to master. This post covers some lessons I’ve learned and things I’ve noted. YRMV but I want to point GMs (and players) to some considerations.

If you’re interested in Blades, I recommend checking out Kyle Thompson’s extensive and unconfusing video series walking through the rules. If you already dig Blades, consider checking out Hack the Planet, a Kickstarter by Fraser Simons which takes BitD into solarpunk territory. 

Each character has “possible” equipment in their playbook. On a job each player selects their loadout LEVEL, trading number of items for raising suspicion. On the actual job they can use that many items, selected on the fly. Blades bakes that in by making each playbook’s choices unique. What they can have speaks volumes about their archetype and the setting. 

However in play we often forget equipment. When I GM I don’t have those lists in front of me. The players forget because I move things fast and they focus on stress and special abilities. I need to get better about that. On the other hand, the book doesn’t spend much time on how exactly you can use items. In the past I defaulted to an extra die if applicable. But a recent discussion pointed out to me that it could also encompass fictional justifications for actions, changes in scale of success, negation of some stress cost, or pre-requisites for massively challenging tasks.

I’ve thought recently about where and how systems define results/ success/ consequences. For example, in standard PbtA games your roll lets you or the GM define those. Costs include GM Moves or the player picking from stuff. PbtA also has a “tell them the consequences and ask” principle, but that’s a situational thing. Mutant: Year Zero follows PbtA’s pattern. Players say their intent and roll. If they roll one success they do it; they can spend extra successes to do more or better. If they fail, then something bad always happens. In combat missing serves as a cost; outside of combat the GM picks.

Systems with modifiers figure out challenges and apply them to the roll. Sometimes straight failure means nothing happens, sometimes it triggers an obvious consequence. Cypher has a twist on this—additional costs can come from particularly bad rolls. The GM can also perform an “Intrusion” at any time to complicate things. While the rules discuss what bad stuff and intrusions look like in relation to different tasks and roles, the system doesn’t require that failure generate anything other than failure.

On the other hand 7th Sea takes a different approach. When a player needs to do something, they make a Risk. When they take an action, they 1) say what they want to accomplish, 2) define their skills & trait, and 3) get bonus dice and roll. The GM says how many raises they need to do what they want. But the GM must also establish what Consequences are on the table: getting hurt, losing something, an NPC’s safety, taking too long, looking bad, expendable resources, a bad future position. Essentially the GM has to state their move. EVERY RISK has a Consequence (sometimes more). If it doesn’t have a consequence, then the player shouldn’t roll. This frontloads thinking about fallout and circumstances.

Blades in the Dark, as I read it, mixes these approaches. A standard control has two axes: position and effect. Position defines the severity of consequences or problems. The situation may make that obvious or it may remain abstract. Sometimes I describe the moment in more detail to put everyone on same page. The player rolls and from the result level we determine any consequences (mixed or failure).

But we also have situations players walk or fall into—intrusions of a kind. They’re attacked by a master duelist, the demon pops up, the building collapses—and there’s a consequence on the table. It’s not necessarily the fallout from an action, it’s events in the fiction. Now players act to avoid the consequence and rolls to see how much stress they take in the evasion. Here we have sometime close to 7th Sea with frontloading and choice. In play we flip back and forth between those two, with one potentially rolling into the other. Eventually it flows, but at the start it requires a new approach to seeing what’s happening on the table. (See also this post).

I love how Blades in the Dark teaches the rules. It slowly and carefully layers information, backing up to repeat and emphasize as it introduces new systems. I have a strong memory of it slowly clicking into place. That organization and structure has a cost. I have a hard time finding things when I have to look things up at the table. Years of baked-in assumptions of where you find bits in a rulebook made that worse. But even with tabs attached to pages, when I have to reference something it will invariably elude me. Every freaking game it takes me two minutes to find the session end experience mechanics.

If you run BitD, I highly recommend Andrew Shields’ Blades in the Dark Heist Deck. It’s generates excellent characters, challenges, and targets. You’ve got some of that in the random tables at the back of the rules, but this has greater depth and detail. I’ve used them as is and as a springboard for other concepts.

I’m soft on ghosts. I’ve tried to make them seem scary and super dangerous—the book suggests encountering one ought to damage a person’s sanity. I’ve done that when they’ve faced spectral guards and similar challenges. But the setting makes ghosts ubiquitous and hitting the same note doesn’t feel quite right. I need to figure out how to make them more nuanced.

But I’ve also been soft on some of the consequences and costs for our Whisper. Our player likes to dig herself deeper into situations, so I don’t want to double the cost. I suspect the way I handle Whispers looks more like a classical mage. Overall the lesson becomes think about how you want ghosts presented at the table. If you have a Whisper player, you need to give them fair warning and a sense of how you’re going to play this.

Doskvol challenges the GM. On the one hand, it offers an awesome, well-realized city. I support Ryan Dunleavy’s Patreon for new maps. I bought a poster-sized map and set it in the middle of the table, covered with plexiglass. Doskvol’s strange layout and gothic look provides the players a touchstone. But the GM still has to do some heavy lifting.

Doskvol has a multitude of moving parts and events—and I’m not just talking the factions. The many groups have complicated relationships and unique agendas. If the GM keeps clocks for the many gangs and groups, have to analyze and advance those consistently. They need to think about what the factions look like—especially what territories they hold and how that impinges on the PC gang. The GM juggles a lot there, but the game supports that with reference lists.

Understanding and conveying the actual feel and culture of the city poses more difficulties. In order to pull off scams and plot actions, players need a sense of the world. As with other story games, Blades builds much of that through collaboration and questions. But quickly the GM has to manage consistency, especially as new details smack up against key setting concepts. Blades in the Dark has several, but I’ll point to just one: it’s dark all the time.

There’s no sun. All the light in Doskvol comes from firelight or ghost-powered lamps. That changes the setting massively. How do people get food? The book mentions mushrooms and some other sources, but ghost growlights eventually screw things up and limits scale. What other sources exist, what kinds of plants can people eat—and then what kinds of wildlife survive? Is this constrained food supply a pure free market or does the Empire control and dole out some subsistence rations? That’s a classic historical formula—if so what does that distribution look like, how much corruption exists?

Darkness is just one detail, but it has a host of implications. What about the death of the gods and the existence of cities, what about the massive risk in travelling between cities, what about the ubiquity of ghosts, what about the massive Deathlands keeping everyone trapped in urban centers? Doskvol creeps up on you. You might have grokked the feel of the place, but not have a grip on the actual city.

Many game settings don’t have the same level of interconnected depth. I run a ton of rpgs for The Gauntlet Hangouts; I’ve learned how to condense and present settings. I find the key elements and put those in front of the players: Kuro, Unmasked, 7th Sea, Mutant City Blues. I file off corners and heavy details to deliver verisimilitude. But Blades in the Dark has a complicated architecture. As with the rules there’s a simple key premise: rough urban center in perpetual darkness. But the game enriches that deeply. If you run, you’ll find yourself returning to the book repeatedly to help your framing.

Players will discover the potent character abilities. In my game multiple PCs have chosen three of these. Functioning Vice (Spider) allows the players to modify the results of their roll when indulging their vice. In practical terms, this means they’ll never overindulge except in rare, rare circumstances. Plus if someone shares their vice, they can bring them along for the same effect. Calculating (Spider) allows for an additional downtime action. If you have six players, as I do, and everyone takes this, as they did, that’s 18 downtime actions. Training, Asset Creation, and Heat Reduction will skyrocket. A Little Something on the Side (Slide) gives the character +2 stash at the end of every downtime. That will rack up and changes the resource dynamic at the table.

None of these break the game, but GMs should know how they can shift play.

Each Gang Type has a set of preferred jobs aka Hunting Grounds. They pick one of four as favored, but the others point to the kinds of missions the gang will typically want to handle. These don’t map directly to the six job types mentioned in BitD’s Approach section. For example Assassins have accident, disappearance, murder, and ransom as choices. I can easily imagine these operations and what they’d look like in the system. On the other hand, our crew type, Hawkers, have sale, supply, show of force, and socialize. That presents greater challenge to structure as a cool job-- one where everyone gets to show off their talents.

That means as a GM you need to look really hard at and brainstorm those. The gangs can do jobs outside of these, but those choices points to what the players might expect. I wish the book had further discussion and examples for the different hunting grounds. I think that’s a rich vein to tap for someone doing Forged in the Dark supplements. Rob Donoghue has pointed to Leverage and cons as a rich source of job types and that helps. But I probably need to spend some prep time thinking more about variations on these hunting grounds.

Hope that proved useful. If you’ve run or played Blades, what have you seen?

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Unmasked: Five Sample Characters

I’m running three different Cypher System games this month, as I mentioned in this post on my Cypher System cheat sheet. Both Fall of the Gods and Predation have excellent pre-gens in their quick-starts. Unmasked does not, but that gave me the opportunity to dive into the character creation process. I asked the players to pick their descriptors and class. I also had them outline the kinds of powers they’d like and I hunted down fitting foci. You can see the results below.

Unmasked characters have two parts: their teen selves and their “Mask” selves. It’s a great concept, with a tug-of-war or split happening between those. In a few cases I stuck took parts from some of the class themes in the Cypher core book to make the players’ concepts work. These are all Tier 1 Effort 1 characters, but I gave them two extra abilities because we’re only playing four sessions. You can watch the video for Session One here. You can also find my revised Cypher 1P Cheat here.

Darlene Szabo is a CREATIVE TEEN
  • Collage (Intellect Trained)
  • Puzzle-solving (Intellect Trained)
  • Learning new things (Intellect Trained)
  • Pleasant Social Interactions (Intellect Inability)
  • Plus three teen skills
Power Shifts: 1 Shift Sonic Blast (7d); 1 Shift Attacks; 1 Shift Sound Control
  • Music (Intellect Trained)
  • Speculative Thinking (Intellect Trained)
  • Fitting In (Intellect Inability)
  • Class Basics (Light weapons no penalty, Prodigy Sight, Use Momentos)
  • Encouragement (1 Intellect Point)
  • Liberace (1 Intellect) Unmasked General Ability
  • Original: Teen Only; from Creative.
  • Sonic Blast (1 Intellect Point)
  • Sound Control (2 Intellect) Note to get what the player wanted I made up this in as the ability to perform minor sound illusions. Enabler.
  • Spin Identity (2+ Intellect Points)
  • Stink Eye (1 Intellect Point)
  • Terrifying Presence (2+ Intellect)

Anthony Rivas is a LAWFUL TEEN
  • Non-combat tasks when upholding the law (Intellect Trained)
  • Knowing laws (Intellect Trained)
  • Revelation prophecy (Intellect Trained)
  • Dungeons and Dragons (Intellect Trained)
  • Skateboarding (Intellect Trained)
  • Breaking the law (Intellect Inability)
Power Shifts: 1 Shift Unliving Vigor (additional recovery roll); 1 Shift Fast (see skills); 1 Shift Necromantic Attacks (see skills)   
  • Stealth (Intellect Trained)
  • Resisting questioning (Intellect Trained)
  • Initiative (Speed Power Shift)
  • Speed defense (Fast) (Speed Power Shift)
  • Necromantic Attacks (Speed Power Shift)
  • Gaining Trust (Intellect Inability)
  • Class Basics (Light weapons no penalty, Prodigy Sight, Use Momentos)
  • Aggression (2 Intellect Points)
  • Confounding
  • Death Touch (1 Intellect Point)
  • Entangling Force (1+ Intellect Point)
  • Premonition (2 Intellect Points)
  • Seek Them Out (1 Intellect Point) Unmasked General Ability
  • Speaker for the Dead (2 Intellect Points)

Shawn Jefferson is a GUARDED TEEN
  • Intellect Defense (Intellect Trained)
  • Discerning Truth (Intellect Trained)
  • Pinball Wizard (Speed Trained)
  • Scrounging/Dumpster Diving (Intellect Trained)
  • Plus a teen skill
  • Deception or Persuasion (Intellect Inability)
MIGHT 22 Edge 2
Power Shifts: 1 Shift Armor (total 2); 1 Shift all Strength tasks; 1 Shift Punch Damage (+3d)
  • Initiative (Speed Trained)
  • Overcoming Fear or Intimidation (Intellect Trained)
  • Punching (Might Trained)
  • (physical skill: run, climb,etc) (Might Trained)
  • (physical skill: run, climb,etc) (Might Trained)
  • Class Basics (All weapons no penalty, Prodigy Sight, Use Momentos)
  • Bash (1 Might Point)
  • Golem Body
  • Golem Healing
  • No Need for Weapons
  • Where Did That Come From? (2 Might Points) Unmasked General Ability

Eric Pinkard is a METAL-HEAD TEEN
  • Mechanical repair (Intellect Trained)
  • Drinking (Intellect Trained)
  • Makeup Application (Intellect Trained)
  • Applying Band-Aids (Intellect Trained)
  • Blend in or Conceal Identity (Intellect Trained)
Power Shifts: 1 Shift Interfacing with Technology (see skills); 1 Shift perfect organism (resistance poison, suffocation, etc); 1 Shift attacks
  • Interfacing with Tech (Intellect Power Shift)
  • Class Basics (Light weapons without penalty, Prodigy Sight, Use Momentos)
  • Advantage
  • Far Step (2 Intellect Points)
  • I'll Waste You: Teen Only; from Metal Head
  • Luck Pool
  • Onslaught (1 Intellect Points)
  • Scramble Machine (2 Intellect Points)
  • Shatter (2 Intellect Points)
  • That's Heavy (3 Might Points)

Sofia Di Maio is a KIND TEEN
  • Pleasant Social Interactions (Intellect Trained)
  • Discerning People's Dispositions (Intellect Trained)
  • Plus three teen skills
  • Detecting Falsehoods  (Intellect Trained)
MIGHT 13 Edge 1
SPEED 18 Edge 1
Power Shifts: 1 Shift Unarmed damage; 1 Shift Dexterity (-1 movement, acrobatics, dexterity, and Speed defense); 1 Shift Reaction Speed (initiative and Speed defense). See skills.
  • Balancing (Speed Trained)
  • Initiative (Speed Power Shift)
  • Movement, Acrobatics, Dexterity (Speed Power Shift)
  • Speed Defense (Speed Power Shift x2)
  • Class Basics (Light and medium weapons without penalty, Prodigy Sight, Use Momentos)
  • Block (3 Speed Points)
  • Danger Sense (1 Speed Point)
  • Fleet of Foot
  • Karma: Teen Only: from Kind
  • No Need for Weapons
  • Opportunist
  • Running Speed

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Cypher System: 1P Player Cheat

Tomorrow kicks off my Cypher System month on the Gauntlet Hangouts. I’ll be running sessions of three different Cypher settings: Gods of the Fall, Predation, and Unmasked. It’s the first time I’ve run Cypher and I’m excited to give it a try. I’m using pre-gens for the Thursday games, but making up characters for our Sunday sessions of Unmasked. To orient myself (and the players) I crafted a one-page cheat sheet. It doesn’t cover everything, just the basics players might hit in a couple of sessions. I’ve also made a formatted pdf of it if you’re interested. Also check out the Cypher System Rules Primer available for free. NOTE: I've updated the pdf with a couple of additional details. 

  1. Declare your task.
  2. The GM assigns a difficulty, usually 1-10, and a stat (Might, Speed, Intellect). 
  3. You reduce that difficulty number (via skills, circumstances, effort)
  4. Multiply the final difficulty by 3.
  5. Roll that number or above on a d20.
As you can see, you’ll focus your work on step 3. So how can you lower difficulty?
  • Skill: if you have a related skill reduce difficulty by one step. If you’re “specialized” reduce it by 2 steps instead. If you have an Inability you increase it by 1. 
  • Assets: This catch-all includes equipment, aid, high ground, etc. This can at most reduce the difficulty by 2 steps. 
  • Effort: For every 3 points spent from the stat Pool, reduce the difficulty number by 1. Abilities modify this spend. 
If you reduce a difficulty to 0, you don’t have to roll.  If you have Edge with a stat, you reduce the cost of Effort and ability activation from that Pool by one. You also have an Effort rating based on your Tier. This shows how many times you may apply Effort to a single action.

Combat works the same. You roll both attack and defense; the GM never rolls in this fame. For initiative roll a d20 Speed roll. If you beat the NPC value, you go before them. Otherwise you go after. 

Weapons do set damage. A light weapon does 2 damage, but reduces difficulty by 1 step. A medium weapon does 4 damage. A heavy weapon does 6 and requires both hands. Armor subtracts straight from damage. 

When you roll a 19 and succeed, you get a minor effect. In combat that’s +3 damage, knockdown, or anything similar. If you roll a 20 and succeed, you get a major effect and regain any Effort you spent. A major effect in combat’s +4 damage or a similar effect. Outside of combat, major and minor effects let you do more and look cooler. 

In combat, a 17 adds +1 damage; an 18 adds +2. You may spend Effort to increase damage. One level of Effort (usually 3 points) does +3 damage. 

If you roll a one, the GM makes an Intrusion (see below) and doesn’t offer XP.

Damage is subtracted from the appropriate Pool, usually Might. When your first stat Pool gets reduced to 0, you are Impaired. It now costs an additional point to apply Effort. You don’t get major or minor effects from rolls when Impaired. If you take more damage apply it to the next Pool (Speed, then Intellect). 

If you’re Impaired and take enough damage to reduce another stat Pool to 0 you’re Debilitated. Can crawl around, but that’s it. If you take enough damage to reduce another Pool to 0 you die. 

To recover you Pool, rest. Roll 1d6+1 and divide the result among your Pools as you wish. Your first recovery each day takes an action. After that it requires an increasing amount of time (ten minutes, one hour, ten hours). 

At any time, the GM may introduce a complication called an Intrusion. This spotlight’s a particular character. Something happens, a task turns out to be more difficult, a job requires more resources, the place blows up. If you’re chosen, you must deal with the situation, but you get 2XP. Keep one and give another to another player. 

You may decline an intrusion, but this costs 1 XP. If you have no XP, you can’t refuse.

If you are planning, researching, or scout, scouting, you can spend 3 Intellect and an action to gain a single bit of special knowledge from the GM that you can count on with certainty.

Your characters may have abilities allowing enhancements to actions, bonuses, or new action types (like firing lasers from your eyes). If something costs points to activate it, reduce that cost by your character’s Edge with that stat Pool. Cyphers are one-shot items; you can only carry a limited number of these. 

At the end of a session, the GM awards each player 1-4 XP if they made any significant discoveries. Basically if you learned or found out anything cool or new you get XP. This can be about the plot, the world, themselves, etc. 10 gains you a benefit; four benefits raise your Tier. 

What other essential elements did I miss? I left off distance & action since they're basic and can be explained in a moment by the GM. Here I wanted concepts players might need to check back on. I'll revisit this after I've run some sessions to see what key bits I forgot. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Hearts of Wulin: What Next?

I ran the last session of Hearts of Wulin PbtA yesterday. I tied together several character threads, put two PCs in the spotlight, and significantly changed some entanglements. Down below I’ve put links to the session videos and my previous posts on the system. Today I want to consider some of the material I need to develop if I want to make this a full-fledged game. This isn’t everything, but its where I plan to start.

Side note: I used a PbtA “Love Letter” this weekend. That’s not a technique I’ve used much before. But we had a player miss session three and return for four. It generated cool story changes and worked well. I need to remember these for longer campaigns with characters dropping out and popping back in later. Here’s the letter’s text:

You went to protect your brother and remove him from the dangers, but also to consult with your parents about the potential marriage arrangement. When you confront your parents, roll. On a 10+ they hear your words and understand that what they’ve done may be premature. However to keep face they require something significant of you. What is it? On a 7-9, they’re upset with you and it creates a rift. They will instead offer your brother’s hand in marriage to Zhen Ai. How does this reshape your entanglements? On a 6-, they command you to accept the marriage and formally announce it.

I ran this rough draft of Hearts of Wulin without a formal set of GM practices. Instead I relied on my sense of the genre and conventions. Now I need draft guidance for what that actually means. Looking back at sessions, I’ve spotted opportunities, moments where I could have deepened the setting without too much intrusion. Based on that I’ve assembled a preliminary set of GM elements—complementing more universal PbtA admonitions.

GM Principles/Agendas
  • Establish the Wulin World
  • Emphasize the Split between Wulin and Normal World
  • Everyone Knows Each Other, Except When They Don’t
  • Entanglements Change
  • Remind Them of Duty and Family
  • Everyone Speaks Obliquely About Feelings
  • Things Always Happen Without Warning
  • Show the Parallel World of Imperial Authority
  • Set and Maintain Your Level of the “Fantastic”
GM Moves
  • Apply Long Suffering Wounds
  • An Ally’s Accidental Betrayal
  • Force a Struggle
  • Mark a Condition
  • Face the Past
  • Engage a Rival
  • Have a Challenger Appear
  • Draw Them Together
  • Hint at Corruption
  • Invoke Loyalty to Teachers & Mentors
  • Threaten Family
  • Suggest Future Devastation
  • Bring Loyalties into Conflict
  • Reveal History’s Hidden Truth
  • Catch them in Revenge by Association
  • Peel Back a Disguise
  • Level Accusations
  • Send a Mysterious Invitation
  • Change Someone’s Scale

As it stand right now, Hearts of Wulin could include supernatural elements. There’s no reason to keep that out of the fiction. But the mechanics don’t incentivize or enhance that. I want to develop an optional material to help simulate movies like Bride with White Hair, Green Snake, and Zu Warriors. There’s a fine line between the heightened abilities of martial arts in these movies and actual supernatural forces.

I can think of three parts to support that: a) new roles for the playbooks; b) new standard moves; and c) material covering supernatural forces in the setting (ghosts, wizards, gods).

I would be cool (and symmetrical) to have a new role for each playbook. Off the top of my head, I’ve considered: Exorcist, Alchemist, Monster Hunter, Taoist Magician, Cursed, and In Human Guise. This last one would represent supernatural forces who have taken another form to interact with humanity: Susu from The Sorcerer and The White Snake, Monkey from Journey to the West, or Xiaowei from Painted Skin. We’d handle that as an open secret at the table.

I imagine the Exorcist/Monster Hunter would have the ability to resist the influence of and interact with their respective sphere of influence. For each they’d also begin with an entanglement related to their work: a ghost who loves them, a monster they protect, a creature seeking revenge but tied to someone they care for. The Taoist Magicians often deals with ghosts, so maybe it doesn’t need its own role move. I’d also like to steer away directly from things with real world analogues. I’m not sure about the Alchemist and what they could do. Both Qin the Warring Era and Legends of Wulin have systems for this, but I don’t want anything elaborate. Maybe more an herbalist.

I have an idea for The Cursed, but it’s rough: You have an additional condition called Friends & Family. Any time you mark a condition, you may mark this instead. If you do so, a future scene will showcase a terrible event or encounter having happened to a close NPC. They might be injured, haunted, or even simply angry at you for an unclear reason. You have to deal with their problems to clear this condition.

I wonder if additional Basic moves would be needed. There’s a trope in many of these movies that supernatural elements terrify the hardiest unless they have preparation. I might not need anything except Overcome and a consideration of Scale. As for going detailingr the supernatural—probably worth assembling some general discussions of those tropes and maybe laying out some fronts.

As you saw in my Basic Moves post a few need significant re-tuning. I don’t think require complete retooled, but we will see. With more play we might discover which moves get used and which get forgotten. In a couple cases how I ran at the table varied from their text. I need to reconcile that. For example, I originally intended that the Comfort & Support move wouldn’t clear Conditions in a conflict situation, only outside of that.

At the table I let the players do clear those in a fight because it felt right. Not permitting that would have shut down interesting choices and limited things. In a PbtA game aiming for tragic pressure on the players that might be right. But for one that embraces empowering action it wasn’t. So I need to stress test other moves to see if we’ve got other frayed edges.

Changing Comfort & Support in turn meant I had to change at least one playbook move. In general I’m happy with the starting playbook choices. They reflect the kinds of characters I expect from this setting. Some of the moves seem a little derivative and I need make them feel like they’re part of the wulin world. I like eight moves each; I wouldn’t want to do too many more. They’d have to be pretty cool to add them.

On a related note the playbooks right now say that players can create custom moves for their style as an advancement. I need to provide examples of those and guidelines for building them. I don’t necessarily want to go down the rabbit hole of pre-built styles but I need to figure out what those could look like.

If I want to write this up as a formal (and publishable) project, I need develop materials which can help someone get into and run this genre. The GM Moves will establish some of that. Tweaks to Basic and Playbook moves to deepen flavor will help as well. A list of suggested viewing and reading’s a must. To supplement that I want to go through some of the classic movies and books examine them in the context of the game. Jianghu Hustle does a great job of analyzing films to draw out their wulin and gameable elements. I’d like to do something similar, but talking about what moves occur at particular moments in these movies. I’d also like to walk through some of the best wuxia TV series to show what a great resource they can be.

I had additional concepts I didn’t develop for this first draft. I don’t know if they’ll be worth pursuing. For example I thought players transitioning might transition between the five archetypal playbooks as their characters grew. Moving from X to Y playbook would open up a special move tied to that shift. For example a character changing from Loyal to Outside might have the “Disillusioned” move; from Aware to Student might gain “Broken Path;” from Student to Bravo could have “Worldly.” I don’t know if it’s a worthwhile goal to come up with twenty of those or not.

I love these movies and stories but I’m also an old, white dude. If I tune this publication I want to have Chinese and other Asian readers look it over. It’d be great to have someone familiar with Chinese wuxia series especially give their input. These are flashy, melodramatic stories—often soap operatic-- but I don’t want to end up with a parody or something that just revels in exoticism. I also need to get someone familiar with Korean swords & history dramas. How do they differ and what kinds of tools might we need to better serve those?

I always take one of my own games to Origins Games on Demand, though they’re often not picked by players. Last year I did all Tales of the Loop and The Veil; I never got to run Magic Inc. I’ll try again with HoW. With some tuning it could work as a one-shot: two entanglements, list picks for names, pre-set factions, simple playbooks. I might create NPC cards with pictures from my Pinterest board to help evoke the setting. If I’m going to do that I’ll probably run a couple of two shot sessions for the Gauntlet Hangouts in May. A split online two shot’s probably the equivalent of a f2f four hour game.

I still have a bunch of work to do, but that’s the basics. Thoughts?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Cake in the Background

I'd almost finished a blog post draft and then I realized I'm going be spending at least part of my birthday tomorrow cleaning up my dad's water-damaged basement and I'd really rather be playing Monster Hunter World and so here's a picture of me running D&D as a kid at one of my birthday parties using a homemade DM screen. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hearts of Wulin: Playbooks

I posted the basic moves for Hearts of Wulin last week. So far we have five playbooks Aware, Bravo, Loyal, Outsider, and Student. Each has three “base” moves players choose from to refine their role. You can see some moves are original and some hybridized. These are my first attempts; I think they work well, but I also need to go back and look at them for how they fit with the Basic Moves and the genre. I'm also unreasonably proud of naming all the moves after wuxia films & series. 

With this, my last post, and experience with PbtA, you can probably run Hearts of Wulin. As with the other move, where it says “roll,” players select which Chi to roll with. You can see an example Google character Spreadsheet for HoW here. There are some small changes to the Move texts between these posts and the sheet, but they’re basically the same. On Thursday, I’ll post some thinking about GM Moves & Principles, next steps, repurposing these rules, and a distinct module for more supernatural wuxia stories (Bride with White Hair, Green Snake, Chinese Ghost Story). If you dig this, have questions, or run this preliminary version yourself, give me a heads up.

You're a paragon of calm and thoughtfulness. You understand when it is time to fight and when it is not. When you attempt to stop a conflict as it breaks out, roll. On a 10+ you cool tempers. If anyone decides to instigate the fight, they must mark a condition. This lasts until the circumstances change. On a 7-9, you have a moment to negotiate. You must offer the attacking side something they want or they will press their assault. On a 6-+, you’re caught up in the fight and suffer damage or blame.

You're a gifted scholar, well read and well informed. When you perform a Study action based on history, research, or informants, you always gain +1 Hold. You gain +1 Forward acting on the information.

You have travelled across the land and met many people. You know telltale signs and markings that reveal members of a faction. At a glance you can pick out an unhidden person’s group or organization. When you attempt to penetrate a disguise roll. On a 10+ you can identify them and ask a question. On a 7-9 you can identify them but they notice your attention. On a 6+ you misidentify them or walk into a trap.

You can immediately spot and identify any kind of poison or potion before it's consumed in your presence. If someone has been struck by poison, you may roll Overcome with a +1 to treat and heal them.

You can build strange devices. Say what you wish to create and the GM will tell you what you need (time, materials, assistance). If you have those, roll. On a 10+ you build it. On a 7-9 the GM will tell you how its effect will be uncertain or fragile. On a miss, choose whether you injure yourself in the failure or the creation backfires spectacularly when used.
Choose a faction, you take +1 Forward on any social interactions with a member of that faction. You're regarded as an honored guest by them until proven otherwise.

Once per scene you may move to anywhere within line of sight. This can be accomplished regardless of height or distance provided no completely blocking barriers exist. While all PCs possess “lightfoot” movement, this motion demonstrates mastery and may shock your opponents.

While you have a condition marked on your Style Element, you may substitute another Chi in for Martial actions.

When you craft a plan with someone roll. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7-9, hold 2. You can spend your hold 1-for-1, regardless of distance, while the plan is being carried out to:
  • Add +1 Forward
  • Clear a Chi condition
  • Reveal you have something necessary for the mission 
On a miss, hold 1, but your plan falls apart at the worst possible moment. On a fail, your plan’s revealed, leading to betrayal or ambush.

If you attempt to keep someone from dying in your presence, roll. On a 10+ you keep them from passing, though that may put them into a suspended state. On a 7-9, you can do so, but there is a significant cost. On a fail someone will somehow blame you for the death.

Take a +1 when you deal with Inner Conflict.

You're the blessed one, the person expected to take control of your family one day. One parent may spoil you, defending you even if the other becomes irritated at your behavior. You always have coin and everywhere you go, merchants and innkeepers set the finest table for you and your entourage. You can defer payment; they know your family's good for it.

You keep a charming smile and live well, but behind the scenes you pursue a life of crime. You're not a common criminal, of course. You simply work to have the finer things in life you deserve. And you only steal from those who deserve it. You may even be a "Robin Hood" character, striking at fat cats and corrupt officials to aid the poor. Come up with a legendary name for your criminal identity. You also have a foil: a magistrate or investigating official who pursues you but manages to always pass you information via their bumbling.

You travel from place to place, enjoying yourself, gambling, and leaving a trail of broken hearts behind. You probably enjoy a bad reputation among the respectable classes, but that only adds to your aura. You may not be wealthy, but you know how to stay ahead of problems. When you would suffer social, legal or financial consequences, name someone and roll. On a hit, they suffer instead. On a 7-9, they know it was you. On a fail, your scapegoating falls apart and your erstwhile victim finds out what you tried to do.

When you case out a location, roll. On a 10+, ask three questions from below. On a 7-9, ask two. Take +1 Forward acting on the answers.
  • What’s my best path in/out?
  • What happened here recently?
  • What here is worth stealing?
  • Who or what here is not what they seem?
  • How can I embarrass them?
On a miss, you find yourself in over your head. The GM will tell you how you're in a bad spot.

Your clothing, belongings and quarters are all lavish and expensive. Gain one of the following NPCs as a retainer: Servant, Assistant, Bodyguard, Consort, or Teacher. Name the NPC and give them a 2-4 word description.

When you go to your circle of contacts to get something you want roll. On a hit, you get what you want. On a 10+ they provide more than you asked for in volume or quality. On a 7-9 there's a cost or complication. Choose one: it takes time, it depletes your ready cash, it attracts unwanted attention, your contact needs other assistance—burn a bond. On a fail they don’t have it and someone finds out about your hunt.

When you express yourself through a performance of song, poetry, or other art, roll. On a 10+, choose 3. On a 7-9, choose 2.
  • People understand your message.
  • One person present must meet you; tell the GM who.
  • You inflict or clear a condition of your choice in someone present.
  • This experience begins to change popular opinion. Tell the GM what it is you hope for. (2 choices)
When you Study in a formal, official, or high society setting you always have +1 Hold for choices. You gain +1 Forward acting on the answers. As well without rolling you may always pick out who is the most influential or wealthy person in the room at a glance.

You can slip from any restraint or pass through any door or window as if it were open. This slippery nature  extends to attack and defense—you move elegantly to avoid attacks so as to not wrinkle your dress or spill your plum wine.

When you spend time with someone to learn their web of connections, roll. On a hit, you discover their three closest confidantes and a short descriptor of that relationship. Alternately, you may learn one confidante and one debt the target has not revealed to others. On a 7-9 your target’s aware of your workings. On a miss someone you didn’t want to know becomes aware of your meddling.

So long as you continue to interact with someone, you keep their attention and distract them from other business. You may even draw them away to another locale. If they want to leave you, the target must mark a condition. This ability doesn’t work after an open conflict has erupted.

You're loyal to your family or clan, and they in turn support you. You have no worries about resources. Once per session you may call in a favor from your family: a letter of introduction, pulling strings to get you and your companions into an exclusive party, or perhaps support for a wild plan. They may ask favors or have other expectations for you.

You might be a magistrate, judge, or simply a civil servant. This gives you a measure of authority. You have connections who can give you information or help you out when you need it. Choose a type of contact- street beggars, court hangers on, members of a particular faction. You can always make contact with someone of that type who can give you basic information or help you in some minor way, so long as it doesn't cost them anything or put them in danger. If you want more hard-to-find information or a dangerous favor, you will have to agree to a cost your connection stipulates.

All in the wulin world have learned combat, but only a few have truly devoted themselves to it as deeply as you. Your service to your family and clan comes in being the best knight you can be. You have an additional Wounded condition. When you mark your first Wounded, you're bloodied and cut, but you can still fight. You're only taken out after checking your second Wounded.

You possess a legendary blade which can be recognized wherever you go. You gain +1 when you Deal with Mooks or attempt to Impress someone from the martial world.

When you seek advice from one of your seniors, roll. On a hit they will tell you what to do. On a 10+, mark XP if you follow their advice and take +1 ongoing to follow through. On a 7-9, you get +1 forward to see it through if you do it their way. On a miss, they’re secretly connected to the troubles you’re asking about.

When you give NPCS an order based on your authority, roll. On a hit, they choose one from below. On a 10+, take +1 forward against them.
  • Follow your order
  • Clear your path
  • Clumsily attack you
  • Freeze with uncertainty
On a miss someone of your scale will challenge you for your abuse of authority. This may happen now or in the future.

When you hunt someone, roll. On a hit, you know exactly where to find them and can track them until you do. On a 10+, they're not alerted and you take +1 Forward against them. On a miss, someone unpleasant finds you first.

When you Support an ally, give them +2 to their roll instead of +1.

When you defend someone or something from an immediate threat, roll. On a hit, you keep them safe and choose one.
  • Take control of something
  • Change the location of the conflict
  • Gain a bond with the person protected
On a 7-9, you also expose yourself to danger or escalate the situation. On a fail, tragedy occurs.

You may burn a bond with someone to appear in their presence. Others may burn a bond with you to have you appear as well.

When someone breaks a promise to you or lies to you and you find out, you gain a Bond with them. If you burn this bond in an action against them, you may add +2 Forward. Additionally, you can spend it to have one of their plans or activities go awry. Say what happens.

You rebel against something: a corrupt official, your original faction, the Empire itself. When you call up your fellow rebels to aid you, roll. On a hit you can secretly summon a small group to assist you. On a 7-9 choose one: it takes a long time, you cannot do this again until you're performed a quest for your faction, the group's small in number, you attract unwanted attention. On a fail, they’re in trouble right and your efforts deepen that.

You travel from place to place in search of something: purpose, faith, love. When you return to a community you’ve visited, roll. On a hit, the locals remember you favorably. On a 10 or greater, they owe you a debt of gratitude. On a fail you left a mess behind when you departed.

You're a trickster, happy go lucky and smart. You know how to use the rules of the wulin and outside world to your advantage. You always have leverage when you go to use the Hearts & Minds move, even against those who might not otherwise be susceptible to your words.

When villains appear you always know who they are. The GM will name them and you may declare (or ask for) one detail about them. You're never taken by surprise.

You can assume a perfect disguise. If you're impersonating someone specific you must have seen them and have their garb. When you might be challenged, roll. On a hit, your disguise fools them. On a 7-9 they have a delayed suspicion. On a miss, your disguise falls apart on inspection.

You may attempt to escape a situation, even when surprised. When you try to escape, roll. On a hit, you get away. On a 7-9, choose a complication:
  • You must mark a condition
  • You end up in another dangerous situation
  • You leave evidence behind
  • You owe someone; burn a bond.
On a fail you walk right into their hands.

When you reveal a trap you've left for someone, roll. On a hit, your opponent trips into it, and you get an opening or opportunity. On a 10+, you take +2 forward against them. On a miss, the trap inadvertently leads to a dangerous escalation.

You may choose to appear as another faction to those who do not know the truth.

Once per session, you may announce your presence in the perfect place to "help" someone, regardless of distance or logic.

So long as there are shadows and cover, you may attempt to become invisible and undetectable for a scene. When you conceal yourself, roll. On a hit, no one can detect you until you decide they can. You can break this by choice or attacking. On a 7-9 you remain hidden but leave some trace of yourself behind or alert someone in the scene before you reveal yourself. On a miss, your attempt fails and leaves you vulnerable.

When you reject someone's declaration of love or friendship because of the gap between you, clear a condition and take a bond with them.

You belong to a temple, but have decided (or been told to) explore the temporal world. When wearing your temple robes, locals will treat you with respect and even bandits may think twice before attacking you. You may ask for hospitality while travelling. You must decide a vow which could cause you problems during your journeys.

You understand devotion and dedication even in the face of suffering. When you burn a bond with a person for a bonus, you gain +2 instead of +1.

You have to prove yourself and your natural talent. When you battle someone above your Scale, you do not lose immediately. You may choose to mark a condition to keep your clearly superior foe busy. This gives others breathing room to act, protect people, or get something they came for. If you do this to cover the group's escape, then everyone gets away, including yourself.

When you mark the Wounded condition, all of your allies gain +1 Forward.

When you seek the guidance of one of your elders, tell them a problem you face, and ask them a question about the problem. They will answer it honestly, and tell you what to do. Take +1 ongoing if you listen. If you go your own way, mark XP.

At start of session, roll 2d6. On a 6-, mark XP and the GM gains a “karmic” soft move for later use. On a 7+, note the die roll. At any time during the session, you may swap this in for a roll by you or an ally. The swapped out roll goes away. If the roll has not been swapped by the end of the session, it goes away.

When you intervene as someone offends, horrifies, or upsets another, roll. On a hit you may change what was said said into the kindest compliment. On a miss, you make matters worse. If the effect came from a failed move, on a 10+ you eliminate any fallout. On a 7-9 you reduce the GM Hard Move to a Soft Move.

When you attempt to change the loyalty or purpose of a worthy henchperson or lieutenant, roll. On a 10+ they hear your wisdom and passion. Depending on the situation they may come with you, go to face their master, or flee. On a 7-9, your words make them hesitate. Choose if this plants doubt in their mind or if they take a deliberate or inadvertent action to assist you right now. On a fail, they push your efforts back against you. Mark a condition.

You may use Comfort or Support to clear a Wounded condition.

You're just here to see the world. Once per scene, you may ask one question from Study without rolling.

You're inexperienced, but somehow you alone are the voice of reason. When you offer advice to another PC and they ignore it, you take +1 Ongoing during any attempt to bail them out of their troubles.

If you dig this, have questions, or run this preliminary version yourself, give me a heads up.