CW: References to fictional violence towards women
I played in a game recently that got me thinking about character backgrounds, in particular the ways GMs use them after the players have created them. As any GM will tell you, a well-written backstory can be a real boon to the GM and the story, as it allows them to “tie in” elements of their story with the PC’s backstory, thus fostering engagement and a feeling of mutual ownership over the narrative.
However, it isn’t always sunshine and roses. Today I want to talk about where a GM’s mining of a player’s backstory can go wrong.
As I continue to play-test my Blades in the Dark hack, I’ve done more and more fiddling with some of the “side” mechanics that are a bit off to the side of the core game-play loop. And, once again, I find myself looking at re-rolls.
My original intent in investigating this was to replace the “Devil’s Bargain” mechanic in Blades. In Blades, anyone at the table can suggest a twist or complication the active player can agree to in order to gain +1 die to the roll. It is a good, thematic mechanic for Blades, because it is inherently risky. A +1 can really help you out, especially if your dice pool is low, but it could also just as easily provide no benefit, as you could easily have rolled the result you needed without the extra die, or the extra die could not give you the result you want. It’s less a bargain, more a gamble, with fits with the roguish, things get you into trouble theming of Blades.
For my game, I want a mechanic where friendship, relationships, etc pull you out of trouble, where your friends are team-mates, there to help you when you need them. I think this is where re-rolls excel, because they are most effective as a ‘saving throw’ then an added gamble. The Devil’s Bargain asks you what your willing to risk to get a better shot at winning big, while Intimacy, like the FATE mechanics it’s roughly based on, asks you what you’re willing to spend or sacrifice to avoid failure.
Disclaimer: In this article, I’ll be presenting some advice on how I think more planning-focused GMs can plan out a score in John Harper’s Blades in the Dark. Please note that I don’t think that this is the ONLY way someone could plan a score, or that planning is even necessary for more improvisational GMs.
Still with me? Cool. In Blades in the Dark, the structure of the book and it’s advice indicates that improvisation with the foundation of an expansive, detailed world is the go-to default for running the adventures that make up the game’s session-to-session experience, termed by Blades as “scores.” However, not all GM’s (myself included) do particularly well with on-the-spot improvisation, and while improvisation-from-source-material is one of the best ways to do improvised adventures, it isn’t strictly speaking the best or only way to run adventures for every GM.
Therefore, in this article, I’ll be presenting a methodology I’ve used to pre-plan scores that mimic the “sample” score provided in Blades in the Dark in style, so that they can be run from a written plan by less improvisational GMs.
There’s a game sitting in the garage of my friend’s house. My friend is a “miniatures guy”, and he’s my mentor when it comes to all the fiddly bits of the hobby, things like painting, airbrushing, assembling and gluing. The game is called “Runewars.” Not the board game, mind you, the “starter set” edition of the miniatures game.
I was immensely excited when I first heard about Runewars. I had previously played a fair bit of X-Wing, and taking the dial-driven game-play of that game and applying it to a fantasy, rank-and-file tabletop game seemed, to me, like a match made in heaven.
In design, re-roll mechanics sometimes get a bad rap. The thinking goes that if a game is designed well enough, they effectively become superfluous, and at worst, damaging. After all, if the players can re-roll the dice any time they like, why even bother rolling? There is a school of thought that says once the dice hit the table, there are no take-backs. The die is literally cast, come what may.
But here’s the thing. No game is perfect. Whenever you introduce variance, you will, inevitably, run up against edge cases. The master thief rolling a 1 and crashing through pots and pans. The famed warrior botching a roll and sending their weapon flying out of their hands. If these eventualities happen too often, the game becomes slapstick. But, argues the other side, if these things never happen, then the game becomes stale and boring.
What I think is missing from such a view is the prospect of player agency. When a player rolls the dice, they are, in effect, giving up some amount of agency. The GM, or the system, or some mixture of the two decides what happens next. If the result determined by the die is too incongruous with the vision the player had of their character, it can lead to disassociation and frustration with the game’s mechanics.
As I’ve been working on a new game, I’ve arrived at probably my least favorite part of the process. The major mechanical work is done, everything’s written up, and I’ve even started playtesting. Which means, alas, that it’s time to ask for feedback.
As I’m going through this process, I thought it might be helpful to share some observations that might make the process less miserable for those who come after me.
Sigmata: This Signal Kills Fascists is a tabletop RPG by Chad Walker that is up for backing on Kickstarter. At the time of writing, it’s almost hit its funding goal of $9,000, and I’m pretty certain it will hit that goal soon. I have some critiques about the game, as it’s currently presented.
First off, a couple caveats. This critique isn’t coming from a place of trying to tear down what someone else is building. It’s always a bit weird critiquing a Kickstarter, because you’re not critiquing a finished product. Essentially, I’m critiquing the idea of a product as presented by its creator. But, again, this is a thing that you are asking people to pay money for so I consider it to be fair game. Also, as a sometimes-creator myself, I can imagine times when I’d wished someone had critiqued my work a little earlier in the process before things were set in stone, so I at least had a chance to address the criticisms before the work was finalized.
Second, I think my politics probably line up with Chad Walker’s. This isn’t gonna be some right-wing screed denouncing Sigmata as “ANTIFA THE GAME HOW DARE YOU, SIR.” I can appreciate what he’s trying to do (or at least what I think he’s trying to do), even if I do think there are some flaws in the approach.
Okay. Let’s buckle in then.