- Information Gaps – When The Information Runs Dry
In a recent game, my players reached an impasse. They had talked to two parties, which were in conflict with one another, and had gotten similar but not exactly the same information from both of them. The issue was that they felt that neither side gave them enough information to make a decision clear about who to trust. They were stuck in an information gap, not sure which way to go, based on the information they had. As I sat watching them discuss the issue, I realized that we were in this place where this could go on for a while, unless I nudged things along, but not before I thought a bit more about this situation, and how we as GMs have to help players through these parts when they get hung up on the rocks, so to speak. So here we are…
Making Informed Decisions
In general, players take in information from the GM and use it to make decisions for what to do next in the game. When we are playing there is a back and forth. The GM gives information in the form of description and exposition from the NPCs, the players ingest that information, they then declare their actions, and the GM narrates what comes next. A beautiful loop.
The GM’s role in this is profound. Depending on how we describe a passageway may influence if the players send their Rogue ahead looking for traps, or they could have the Fighter take point expecting an ambush. We walk a fine line of providing evocative descriptions and telegraphing what is coming next.
As GMs our job is to be a perfect narrator, providing truthful descriptions to the players. If we, as GMs, obfuscate what is going on, it will lead to a place where the players won’t trust anything their characters’ sense. That said, an NPC interacting with the players is not required to be fully truthful, and can tell the characters anything they want.
The Doldrums of Information
There are times in a game when the GM does not have any more information to provide. They have given out the description of the scene, they have answered the player’s follow-up questions, and perhaps the characters have made checks to try to get more information. At some point, there is no more information to be had until the players take an action.
The loop has become stalled. The players have all the information that is currently available, but they do not feel like it is enough to clearly see what to do next.
Normally, what happens next is discussion and debate. The players, sometimes in meta or as their characters, will begin to discuss what they know and try to build a consensus on what to do next. Depending on your group this will be smooth or bumpy.
It is in this spot that as GM, you are walking another fine line. How long do you let the players debate and see if they will make a move until you intervene and get the action restarted? What tools do you have?
How To Keep Things Flowing
The worst thing that can happen is that the player discussion stalls out or the players lose focus and someone does something chaotic stupid, or the flow of the game breaks. So what can you do to keep the group talking and make their decision-making process productive? Here are some ideas:
You can take a moment and recap for the players what they do know. This can help bring up details that some of the players may have forgotten and it might remind them of things that will help them arrive at their next action.
Tell Them Things Their Characters Know
In many cases, the characters know many more things about the world they live in than the players. When the players say something or question something that their character would know, tell them. Clear that up for them. This may help them come up with a fact that they need to act.
Ask Them What The Are Unsure Of
Asking the players to tell you what they are stuck on, which is preventing them from making a decision, can help to clear up any misconceptions. Sometimes, they will be stuck on something that they truly don’t know, but other times when they tell you what they are stuck on, you may be able to clear that up with either of the two techniques above; by recapping some information or telling them something their character would know.
Announce Something Approaching
While having a discussion and debate is good for the players, if it starts to drag on too long, you can announce that something is approaching. It could be the sound of something coming through the woods, it could be a text message on their phone, but give them the hint that the world is moving along, and that they are going to need to get moving.
When To Push
Knowing when to get play started again is a bit of an art. It is understanding if the discussion is productive and/or entertaining, or if it’s starting to drag on or become annoying. One of your jobs as the GM is to observe the discussion and get ready to push the game back into action should the discussion become non-productive or annoying. Depending on the circumstances, the players may not need to resolve the current discussion in order to take action. They may be held up in a room in the dungeon debating on what to do with the Big Bad, which they will encounter much later and they can get moving and resume the discussion at a later time.When you reach the moment you need to resume the game, the easiest way to do this is to jump in with the most powerful phrase you have as a GM — “What are you doing?”
When you reach the moment you need to resume the game, the easiest way to do this is to jump in with the most powerful phrase you have as a GM — “What are you doing?”
If needed, you can take that thing that was approaching, and have it arrive. Then ask, “What are you doing?” Then the players keep debating about the Big Bad when a wandering Ogre hears them and comes to the room to find out what is going on.
Some Games Are More Prone To This
There are some genres that are more prone to this problem than others, but it can occur in any game. Games that require a lot of planning and games that deal with mysteries and investigations often run into this issue. In these games, the story is propelled by acting on information, and if the players are not comfortable with the amount of information they have, they can hit one of these doldrums.
In investigation games, the answer to this problem is nearly always to get more information through investigation. The players may be stuck on where to go next for a clue, and you may have to help them find where to go next, through some of those tools.
In games with lots of planning, like games with heists, the group will not want to execute without the information. This is tricky because often they can never get quite enough information. The best of these style games have flashback mechanics that allow the game to operate with less information, and let the characters emulate hyper-competence. If your game is missing those mechanics, then more intel gathering is their only option.
Feel The Flow
The flow of information is necessary for a game to stay productive and to keep moving forward. As the GM you have a vital role to play in making sure that information is available, while at the same time, remaining hands-off as the players make decisions. When the players bog down in discussion and debate, your job is to gently keep the flow going by assisting them in their debate, while remaining hands-off. If all goes well, the players will find their way into their next move, but if it does not, you have to be ready to jump in and get the game flowing again.
How do you manage when your players are short on info and stuck making decisions? Do you have other techniques from the ones I mentioned above? Do you find that certain games or genres have this problem more often than others?Read more »
- Tips for Players: Game Prep
Today, I’m mainly going to be talking to the players at the RPG tables around the world. Here is some advice to you on how to prep for the next RPG session in your campaign. (Note: There are tidbits for the GMs out there as well, so don’t skip the article just because you’re a full-time GM.)
Read the Backstory
One of the most important documents you’ll receive from the GM at the start of a campaign is the brief backstory the GM has put together for you and the other players. The GM has spent their precious time putting this together, so pay some respect to their efforts and read the document.
A note to GMs: Keep your backstory as tight, concise, relevant, and short as possible. While I’m imploring the players to respect your time and efforts, do the same for them. They don’t need a sixteen page treatise on the evolution of the Elvish language you’ve created specifically for the campaign. To be honest, try to keep your relevant details down to two pages. The rest of the world can be explained in-game during exploration and adventuring.
Read the Current Story
If there is a note taker in the group, and they have the ability to share those notes between sessions, then I highly recommend a review of the latest entry of notes the night before (or morning of) the game session that’s coming up. This will allow for the quick recap that happens at most sessions to run more smoothly and be even more quick.
Of course, if the note taker can’t easily share those notes, then it’s incumbent on the note taker to refresh their memories beforehand in order to provide that quick recap before dice get warmed up and rolled.
I’m certain you’ve seen the phrase “system mastery” thrown around quite a bit when it comes to GMs and their responsibility to know the rules, subrules, mechanics, and subgames within the main game in order to run a smooth set of sessions.
For you players, I’m going to advise you to shoot for that same system mastery, but I especially want you to focus in on becoming an absolute expert in everything your character can do. Know your perks, flaws, feats, skills, abilities, spells, powers, stats, equipment, and so on. If you have to, make quick-reference cards for the more detailed or involved items. You’ll find that in making the cards, you’ll be getting closer to that system expertise. Yes, you’ll tend to lean on the GM for advice on how things work, but keep in mind that they have many other concerns at the table beyond how one of your feats or attacks works.
Level Up Your Character
Most games and GMs assume the level up process happens between sessions. This is not always the case, but we’re going to run with it for this section. If you’ve obtained enough experience points, achievements, character points, or whatever it is to measure a significant power up in your character, then take care of that between the games. Don’t show up at the next session and delay the game for everyone else while you figure out what goes up or what new abilities you get. That’s just plain rude and a waste of everyone’s time.
Stay in Touch
With modern technology, it’s super easy to stay in touch between sessions. My personal favorite is Discord, but there are many, many other platforms out there allowing people to connect virtually and asynchronously. If you’re in the midst of gaining system expertise or leveling up your character, this is a great communication method to ask questions of the GM or the other players if you need something clarified or if you need advice.
Along the same lines of staying in touch, when it comes time to arrange the next game, be responsive (within reason) to the “Are we playing Saturday afternoon?” questions and similar things. Don’t leave your group hanging. Let them know you’ll be there. If you can’t be there, let them know as soon as possible. This will allow the group to create plans for an alternate campaign, a one-shot, a board game, or just to cancel completely.
I’ve touched on this already, but if you are unclear about an aspect of the setting, rules, house rules, other characters, or anything printed in official (or GM) materials, get on your Discord channel and ask some questions! Doing this between the sessions is a great chance for the GM to do some additional research, if necessary, and get back to you with a fully-formed and well thought out answer. Yes, sometimes questions come up midgame, so ask those during the session when there is a lull or break in the action. However, if your efforts at system expertise have exposed a flaw or loophole in a house rule, bringing that up while away from the table (or perhaps, at the end of a session) is best.
What other prep do you GMs think players should do? If you’re primarily a player, what prep steps do you take to get ready for a game?Read more »
- VideoGnomecast #104 – RPGaDay Questions, Part 3
Join Di, John, and Phil for part 3 in a series answering questions based on David Chapman’s #RPGaDay social media prompts for 2020! Can these gnomes answer enough questions to avoid being thrown in the stew?
- Troy’s Crock Pot: Great Hall Conundrum
Troy’s Crock Pot: Great Hall Conundrum
Big rooms. Impossibly big rooms. Rooms and caverns designed for giants to stand upright, for dragons to unfurl their leathery wings wide before letting loose a big blast of their fiery breath.
Gladiatorial arena-size big.
Running encounters in such places is a rare and special occurrence. And such an expanse comes with its own set of considerations.
It might be the first time as a GM you have to double-check distances and penalties associated with ranged attacks. Characters who run flat out to reach a spot — then what? Breath weapons and area effect spells take on a whole new dimension, because for many of them, you might be able to discern the outer reach of their zone of effect. So, character speed, movement of mounts, and even limited flying abilities might have to be accounted for.
As a matter of organization, this will likely require a crib sheet with different categories of movement, each character’s capabilities listed accordingly. For the GM’s part, NPC and monster abilities, especially abilities that affect areas or great reach, should be tracked the same way.
Just as importantly, GMs should plan for different ways to use such space.
One of the old masters of the genre is Robert J. Kuntz, who played in Gary Gygax’s original Dungeons and Dragons group and even served as his co-Dungeon Master.
Kuntz designed Mauer Castle and updated it for 3.5 in 2004 for Dungeon Magazine 112. His use of the Great Hall, and later, other levels of the dungeon, are instructive. Here are hallmarks of his design that you can copy and apply to your own great rooms:
> Niches and corners and other small areas essentially serve as rooms of their own. “What’s going on over there?” Viewing in detail might reveal partitions, kennels and cells, depressions, dugouts and mounds that went undetected in a broad overview.
> Elevation is more than opportunities for flyers. Be on the lookout for alcoves, bridges, archways and overhangs. Most often, these are on the surrounding walls. But it could also be structures suspended from the ceiling, like a catwalk.
> Unmarked territories. The player characters may not discern this, initially, but the monsters of the hall might recognize sections of the space as being territory divided between them. These are exploration and discovery opportunities for the characters — though risky discovery opportunities.
> Likewise, there could be dead zones or dampening effects littered across the landscape. Look for ways to incorporate different terrain. Kuntz’ Great Hall has both a pool and an eight-pointed star chiseled into the floor. Why were they constructed? What purposes do they serve?
Great halls can be set pieces that can serve multiple times, even in the course of the adventure. Remember the welcome hall in Jurassic Park? It was used as a place to introduce all the characters, provide a moment of revelation over melting ice cream, and served as a showdown with a pair of velociraptors and the T-Rex.
Let’s hope you, too, find ways to get such mileage out of your great halls in your adventure games.
- Conventional Wisdom: My Weekend of Call of Cthulhu
This article originally appeared on my blog which you can find here. In the past, I’ve heard some comments that in addition to reviews, some readers would appreciate some thoughts on actual play. I’ve got a few of these articles on my blog, and I wanted to share this one here, especially after I played multiple sessions of Call of Cthulhu in the same weekend.
Over the weekend I signed up for multiple Call of Cthulhu games at the local gaming convention, because I don’t get the play the game very often, and most of the time when I play the game at conventions, it is a pretty satisfying experience. What follows are some observations based on my games this weekend, and if you follow me on social media, you may have seen some of these bits here and there already.
The Grim Visage
Before I get into my observations about the game itself, I just wanted to point out a really annoying thing about Cthulhu inspired material. People plaster Lovecraft’s face all over the place in the RPG industry. I don’t get it.
I’ve played Star Wars, Star Trek, and D&D tabletop games before, and yet those games don’t seem to plaster George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, or Gary Gygax’s picture in every single book that comes out. But for some reason, people really need to reprint the image of their patron saint of cosmic horror.
In addition to seeing Lovecraft’s mug in the Call of Cthulhu books over the weekend, we had a nice, atmospheric map of Arkham on the table . . . and in the margins, right there, Lovecraft’s face. I think I’m finally at the point where I cannot in good conscience buy anything about cosmic horror that includes Lovecraft’s face anymore.
What Makes a Cosmic Horror Game?
I’ve learned a few things about my interactions with Call of Cthulhu this weekend, beyond getting increasingly pissed about seeing Lovecraft’s face on everything. I mentioned having generally positive convention experiences with Call of Cthulhu in the past. I think that most of the Keepers I’ve had over the years at conventions were really interested in portraying the feel of the genre.
I think some CoC GMs mistake the futility of PC survival with the futility of action. I’m fine with “succeed at a cost to oblivion” but not thrilled with “keep failing until you die.” Anything about cosmic horror should be a strong example of succeeding at a cost. People who want to emulate the genre are probably ready for bad things to happen to PCs, as long as the story advances.
Overall the convention CoC I’ve played over the years, the most enjoyable have been sessions where GMs see the expansive skill list as a way to flavor what needs to be done, rather than a narrowly defined set of logic gates forcing you to use this 5-20% skills.
It probably goes without saying that random mental illness is very bad, and any stressful break down that’s tied to character traits is way more fun to roleplay, because you are more fully exploring the character, not given a disassociated improv prompt that is also reductive.
I also think there is a point of no return for plot resolution. If you find out, say, less than 50% of the weird steps towards what happened, it’s cool to end the session thinking “what was all that about.” If you uncover 75% or more of what’s going on, but that last 25% makes everything else even more random and nonsensical, you really need some way to get an overview to the players.
The Cycle of FailureI don’t think anyone going to a convention game of Call of Cthulhu is looking to walk away unscathed, but there is a difference between unscathed and unresolved.
Most Call of Cthulhu scenarios I have played in at conventions have underscored the idea that you will resolve the situation, you just won’t likely be doing much else with your life after you got the answers you were looking for. I don’t think anyone going to a convention game of Call of Cthulhu is looking to walk away unscathed, but there is a difference between unscathed and unresolved.
Some examples of frustrations I had over the weekend:
- We needed to make candles that could see another dimension when lit (cool idea!)—we found a chemical formula for them, but because we didn’t have craft (candle making), we couldn’t make them.
- We needed to complete a ritual, but the person that researched the ritual had to perform it. They had the highest academic stats, but the lowest power score, so they continually failed and had to start over.
- Someone in a small town performed a ritual that cursed the whole town, but was also the person that warned everyone that doom was coming, and we never had the opportunity to figure out why he enacted the ritual or where he found the book he used.
Tools and Implementation
I think 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu has much better tools for handling forward momentum than past versions of the game. I think being able to burn luck and push rolls are great additions. They weren’t additions that were handled well in my games over the weekend.
I’ve had convention games where I’ve been convinced I was King Arthur and was picked up by the police while dueling a hapless fellow investigator that I mistook for Lancelot. I’ve sacrificed myself to stop a ritual that would have drained the life force from captive children. I’ve bled out on the way to a car after setting a local corrupted church on fire. But all of those situations were satisfying because the session itself rarely stalled out. It had forward momentum.
I will say this much about playing Call of Cthulhu multiple times this weekend. I really want to dig back into my copy of Tremulus now.
Do you have a favorite property that has been expressed in multiple games? What do those games do differently, and how do those aspects emphasize different aspects of the genre? Do you enjoy playing those different games at different times? Let’s hear about it below!Read more »
- VideoThings Terrain Has Taught Me About Gaming (And Maybe Life?)
2020, for all that it’s been a nightmare blur of alternating panic and boredom, has been a golden age for some when it comes to hobbies. My friends and I are currently surrounded by piles of insulation foam, knitting projects, carpentry, drawings, paint, and an objectively-troubling number of adopted pets. Like everyone else, we miss effortless socializing and even aggressively mundane activities like traveling to work, but gosh if it hasn’t given us more time to sit with ourselves and our ability to manufacture our own joy.
I know that I am lucky, as are most of those around me; we have the luxury of being able to work from home at least some of the time, and several of us live close enough together to form a small, safe “quaranteam” we can socialize (and play games) with. Many, many people are not so fortunate, and none of this is intended to minimize the struggles of those who don’t have the privilege we do.
With that said, many of the topics I’m going to talk about today are as applicable to online games (or even to things outside of gaming) as they are to in-person games where you push around figures and roll the math rocks. So, with that out of the way: things that making terrain has taught me about gaming.
Things Should Do Things, or: Chekov’s Fun
Chekov’s Gun says “if you’re going to have a gun on the mantle in Act 1, it should go off in Act 3.” The same should be true of pretty much everything in your games. When every individual piece of scenery takes hours of time to make, it’s supremely frustrating when that piece is a “there and gone” moment of ephemera. As irritating as this is for the person making dungeon scenery, it’s just as bad for players, who have to wait for the DM to pull out, fumble with, and set up something that doesn’t warrant their attention.
The inimitable Wyloch attempted to make the full, no-compromises “Tomb of Horrors” from D&D (the first video in the series is here, and it’s definitely worth watching). In doing so, he ran face-first into an old design ethos he called “hallways for hallways’ sake.” Particularly in older games, a large chunk of the experience of an RPG was basically discount cartography, with players having to map out sprawling dungeon complexes in order to be able to avoid doubling back on themselves or losing the thread of the adventure entirely. Adding in officially-sanctioned DM trickery like subtly sloping floors to take characters between levels and subtle teleportation magic created an experience that might be fun for some people, but probably isn’t the best item on the gaming menu. Even many modern published “dungeons” are littered with empty storerooms, dead-end hallways, and sometimes entire wings of a complex designed only to fill out gaming time.
Some might argue that real castles, caves, and underground complexes often have empty rooms or dead ends. But we selectively exclude boring things from our games and our fiction all the time. When was the last time you can think of reading about a character in a novel having to go to the bathroom? Please do not answer this question in the comments, I’m begging you.But we selectively exclude boring things from our games and our fiction all the time. When was the last time you can think of reading about a character in a novel having to go to the bathroom? Please do not answer this question in the comments, I’m begging you.
Terrain-based games are limited in ways “theater of the mind” isn’t in two clear ways: available pieces to build the terrain from, and table space. Like many artistic limitations, this forces DMs to be more creative with the space and terrain they do have, creating a more fun game in the process. For an excellent example of how to design a creative, tight, fun scenario that uses terrain, check out “Julinda’s Gauntlet” (also from Wyloch). These same limitations exist in online games that use maps in that the larger a map is, the more processing a computer has to do, and even in theater of the mind, as the more a player has to juggle mentally (or on their notes), the less attention they’re able to pay anything; for more on this topic, check out my earlier article on working memory and how it affects games.
To boil all this down: don’t set anything down on the table that doesn’t change the game for players in some way. This doesn’t have to be an endlessly alternating series of monsters to fight and treasure to find. It can also include:
- Information about the history of the dungeon. This space was made for something initially, and may even have been repurposed later, perhaps even multiple times—a building’s history will leave marks and artifacts behind. Taking this approach basically turns the player party into combat archeologists, and anyone who’s watched any of the three (and only three) Indiana Jones movies ever made knows how much fun that can be.
- Clues to future traps, puzzles, or encounters.
- Foreshadowing about future events or scenarios.
- More information about the world the PCs occupy.
- A new NPC to rescue—or a potential new PC.
- Information about the dungeon itself—layout, number of enemies, locations of traps, or unexpected challenges the new denizens ran into.
Many Small Things Make a Big Thing, but Many Parts of a Big Thing Make a Mess
Making terrain, and I suspect all art, is an exercise in gradually-lightening despair. Every piece I’ve ever made starts out looking like garbage—often literally, as garbage is a great starting point for terrain (please do not look at my pile of shame). There’s something magical about watching something take form, graduating from cringey to only moderately awful to amazing.
But when you try to do huge projects—a whole terrain board, creating a game world, or making a new game system, to name just a few—the amount of time that you spend in the despair stage is astronomically longer. You’ll spend days or even weeks looking at a clumsy, amorphous mass that stubbornly refuses to turn into anything even remotely like what you had in your mind.
Contrast that with making a single, really cool piece. Or a new spell. Or a new mechanic. Pure enthusiasm is powerful, and can often propel you through that first clumsy phase and into that exciting time when something that previously only existed in your imagination is in your players’ hands (or is mopping the floor with them). If you do a single small project like that, you have something cool ready to go in pretty short order, and the worst thing that you can say about it if you put it out on the board is that it looks kind of lonely. If anything, that can help drive you to make the next cool small thing, and then the next, and bam. You have a whole freaking pile of awesome things you can put together.
Be Clear, Even If It’s Ugly: Abstraction is Better than Confusion
“Okay, the goblin miniature represents a pit trap, the orc is a door, and that LEGO is a throne.” I’m not saying that everyone needs to have an enormous pile of exactly the right miniature, or that having perfect representations is the goal. But the more you ask your players to remember that a thing that looks a whole lot like an orc is actually a goblin, or that an empty tile is actually a pit, the more confusion you’re going to get. Even in a turn-based game, we make a number of snap decisions, informed by processes running under the surface that can get short-circuited when we have interference from what our actual physical eyeballs are looking at.
And this is assuming that your players are even paying close enough attention to realize what all those pieces were supposed to represent in the first place. It’s tempting to just grab the first thing at hand and say “okay, this is what this represents.” But when you do that, it only adds to the confusion. We live in a literate society, and if you don’t have anything that is a clear representation of a piece of important landscape, terrain, or monsters, it’s far, far better to just write what it’s supposed to be on a scrap of paper (or a dry erase token) and use that.
Oh, right. Life lesson. People aren’t psychic. Clearly communicating what you want, even when it’s uncomfortable, makes sure that everyone is on the same page. Just as important: remember to gracefully take “no” for an answer. This is equally true in gaming and life.
Don’t Be Afraid to Swing Big, But Also Know When You’re Beat
A short list of things I have tried since starting quarantine:
- Making a diorama of the Bridge at Khazad Dum.
- Creating and running an entire “Masters of the Universe” setting book, with terrain, miniatures, and a full campaign.
- Using the systems from Adventures in Middle Earth to make an ambiguously magic-less Post-Roman Britain setting in 5e.
- Creating a 3X3 hex board with raised, textured cobblestones from scratch.
- Making an entire modular mountain.
A list of the above projects that were successful.
- None of the above.
These are failures. Every last one of them. They were huge swings, and they were all misses. What makes them distinct from the endless litany of my other failures is that I realized that these weren’t going to work, and I stopped working on them. There was something tremendously freeing about saying “okay, this isn’t going to work” and then stopping.
What’s more, these weren’t all wasted effort. In aggregate, from the mess of abandoned projects above, I got:
- A working recipe for homemade clay
- A pretty sweet Castle Grayskull (that I used as an image in this article)
- Conceits for ambiguous magic that I can use in any game.
- Resin-casting supplies and a working knowledge of how to resin-cast.
- Enough mountain pieces to add verticality to any encounter I want to.
There’s no such thing as wasted effort—the absolute least you walk out with is a knowledge of what not to do next time. And if that’s not a metaphor for the magic of just trying something, I don’t know what is.
So there they are: the gaming-and-life-lessons I’ve learned from terrain. So what has gaming taught you?Read more »
- Rebel Crown Review
There have been a lot of Forged in the Dark games, taking on a wide range of topics within the same procedural structure introduced in Blades in the Dark. Some of the earliest, beyond Blades in the Dark itself, were Scum and Villainy and Band of Blades. Beyond moving the genre away from the alchemical industrial punk setting of Duskvol, Scum and Villainy and Band of Blades both introduced something new into the mix of Forged in the Dark games–an endgame.
The game I am looking at today shares the concept of an endgame for the campaign. In tone and genre tropes, it occupies a position somewhere between Blades in the Dark and Band of Blades, as you play a dispossessed heir and their retinue, fighting to reclaim territory so that they can retake the crown from their usurper uncle. The mechanics of the game measure how close you are to having the power to claim the throne.
Rebel Crown is a lean PDF compared to some Forged in the Dark games, coming in at 66 pages. This includes a thanks and acknowledgments page, but most of the document is devoted to specifically presenting the game, rather than summarizing it.
The book is single column in its layout, with a few black and white line drawings with appropriate images of weapons, armor, coins, and various figures. There is clear header formatting to denote separate topics, as well as clearly laid out examples of clocks and other game mechanics.
The game has as its core assumption that one of the players is the claimant to a throne that has been stolen by their uncle. The other players represent characters loyal to the claimant, the claimant’s family, or characters attempting to better their position by supporting the regime change.
The setting is a kingdom split into multiple provinces, with individual domains within each of the provinces. The kingdom itself owes fealty to a greater Empire, and characters will be making a starting domain after picking what retinue playbooks are in play.
Mechanically, the game doesn’t drift too far from the core assumptions of other Forged in the Dark games. A character has a number of dots in an action, and the character describes what action they are using to perform a task. The GM then states the position and effect of that action.
For anyone not familiar with Forged in the Dark games, position explains the severity of failure, while effect explains how effective a success is. Progress is often tracked on clocks, so greater effect usually means more pieces of the clock filled in. Different levels of position might mean the character has minimal danger, serious consequences, or potentially disastrous effects if the character fails.
The game’s play loop is organized into a cycle of Recon, Sortie, and Downtime. Recon is the phase where the group gathers information on what they are going to do, the Sortie is the action of executing a plan to gain Income and Renown. Downtime is where the group can take actions to advance “off-screen” efforts and recover, and the faction clocks of other organizations advance.
One difference from other Forged in the Dark games is Crisis. When a character fills in their stress boxes, they don’t immediately leave the scene. Instead, the character decides if they want to take a final action with increased effect before collapsing or pull themselves together and press on. Pressing on means the character can’t resist consequences. Once characters resolve their crisis, they gain a Scar, and when a character marks their fourth scar, they must leave the retinue, and cannot go on any longer.
Another difference is Buying Time, a means of taking an action when a clock is about to fill in, which splits the last section of the clock into two, stalling off the consequences just a little bit longer.
The Retinue includes the following playbooks, with the Claimant being required for play:
- Claimant (Dispossessed heir trying to recover their throne)
- Chancellor (An allied noble willing to advise and assist the Claimant)
- Devoted (A person directly and fiercely loyal to the Claimant)
- Idealist (A person dedicated to the idea of making the kingdom better through the Claimant)
- Outlaw (A character working with the Claimant hoping to gain pardon for past crimes)
- Vengeant (A wronged person hoping to get revenge on their foe by supporting the Claimant)
There is a list of houses and backgrounds on each of the playbooks, defining the circumstances of the characters in the kingdom, and their connections to one another. Characters then assign action dots and pick a special ability. They also pick a Solace (something to do in downtime to help destress, similar to vices in Blades), friends and rivals, beliefs, and drives.
Like other Forged in the Dark games, each playbook has a list of equipment that they can check off in a sortie to have the proper equipment to do the job at hand. In a departure from some Forged in the Dark games, however, characters can mark additional gear by marking off coin, retroactively showing that the character invested more in this sortie.
The Domain gets its own character sheet. Initially, it represents the holding that the Claimant has. The conditions for reclaiming the throne are spelled out on the sheet. There are places to mark the advancement of time, and the various provinces and locations are listed on the sheet, where the characters can mark off other holdings claimed, and what those holdings add to the overall effort.
Phases of Play
Although gathering information is part of many Forged in the Dark games, Rebel Crown frames it as a special phase of play, and doesn’t limit it to randomized rolls. Instead, there are several questions the players can ask, to get more information on what they may be attempting.
The approaches to the sortie are defined as:
The approach is coupled with the objective of the sortie, and those objectives are defined under these categories:
- Gain Status
- Weaken Faction
Obviously, some approaches are going to be more awkward than others, but this is a game where you play to find out. Characters may want to besiege a location to secure a promise of allyship, or to ransom the location for goods. Objectives all have a list of their “payouts,” in coin or renown. After the sortie, the group checks on Unrest, and when Unrest reaches 9, Imperial Ire is triggered, where the Empress demands something of the group or passes a judgment upon them.
Unrest can also trigger Entanglements, which are local troubles, below Imperial attention, but still enough to modify your status with various factions, or cut off some of the player’s options unless they are directly addressed.
Running the Game
Running the game details information on Levies, Battles, Foe, and Fallout clocks. Attempting to perform actions against a higher tier challenge means that a clock will have more sections added to it, making it more difficult to accomplish.
Levies can be sent out to perform sorties on behalf of the Claimant, rolling their quality in dice to see if they can properly address the issue. They may also come into play in the Battles portion of the game.
Battles represent wider, larger-scale combat, triggered when characters determine they are going to war. A battle has a field clock, foe clock, and fallout clock. The field clock represents the troops on the field. The Foe clock represents enemy commanders that the PCs must deal with directly. The Fallout clock is the clock tracking how much damage and disruption are at play after the battle is over.
This section wraps up with about a half-page discussion of safety, discussing Lines and Veils and the X-Card. In addition to this section, safety is referenced in a section discussing when character objectives may clash with one another, reminding the GM to use safety tools to make sure character disagreements don’t spill over into player disagreements.
The Kingdom sections detail the setting where the game takes place. At first blush, the game appears to model a medieval world at war, but this section introduces more fantasy aspects, primarily the constant presence of wraiths, the spirits of the dead, who are failing to move on to the afterlife. Due to the number of restless dead in the kingdom, lethal force has been frowned on, for fear of generating more of the spirits.
There are three kingdoms affiliated under the rule of an Empress. The Empire itself is now dominated by the religion of the God of Paths; the god tasked with transitioning spirits to the afterlife. The Church of Penance posits that failure to properly placate the God of Paths is what has led to the ubiquity of the wraiths. Wraiths themselves can have different tiers of power when encountered. They are not often susceptible to weapons but might be banished by rituals.
The different provinces are broken down and described in this section. They show what benefits the Claimant gets from seizing that province, what tier that province has, who rules it, and what factions are active in the province.
Individual factions in a province might be less powerful than the province level itself but may provide different benefits. What factions the characters interact with can change the story significantly. For example, siding with warring miners and allying with exiled witches is a much different story than negotiating with current rulers to become a vassal by agreeing to crush a rebellion.
This is a single-page summary of what the retinue must do to declare their endeavor successful. If the Claimant is ever taken out of play, the game ends. Characters must complete 2 of the following 3 conditions:
- Tier–advance the holding to Tier 3
- Rule–claim control of two or more provinces
- Decree–Claimant must have +2 status or greater with the Empress
In addition, the retinue must kill, capture, or banish the usurper from their throne. Given the different ways that two out of three of these circumstances can be completed, this gives the group some flexibility. For example, doing favors for various rulers and the Imperial throne might get the Claimant the throne with less “conquering,” or the character could go on a rampage of subjugation and missions to enhance the core holding, forcing the Empress to recognize the character.
If the group is successful, they make a Coronation roll, which is an action signifying their approach to life after claiming the throne. There are four prompts that the character might receive, to shape the end of the story.
If the players fail, they roll a Catastrophe roll, which similarly measures how the end of the story is reached. The higher the roll on Catastrophe, the more the character might hold on to some semblance of what they initially wanted to accomplish.
Raise the BannersI really like the core system of Forged in the Dark games. The system really does seem to work best when you have forward-moving, mission-based setting assumptions, and reclaiming a lost throne works very well for this.
This game sits nicely between the spaces carved out between Blades in the Dark (multiple factions acting for or against your group, potential politically advantageous missions) and Band of Blades (military, acquisition, and survival). It’s also flexible enough that if the tone of those games is a little too grim, you can always play this game at least attempting to keep the high ground in reclaiming the throne. The book itself does a sound job of summarizing a Forged in the Dark game in a short space and presenting a compelling setting with plenty of story and mechanical depth for the game.
Sound the Retreat
While I like how well summarized the core rules are in this book, it’s hard for me to approach this as someone unfamiliar with Forged in the Dark games, and this book spends a lot less time explaining actions and how multiple actions might be used for the same goal. While I’m sure there are going to be a lot of players that can pick these rules up and run with them, with their clear presentation, I can also picture some players having a hard time absorbing some of the more lightly addressed aspects of the rules.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I really like the core system of Forged in the Dark games. The system really does seem to work best when you have forward-moving, mission-based setting assumptions, and reclaiming a lost throne works very well for this. It’s a bit paradoxical, but while I think Rebel Crown may not deeply examine the mindset behind the rules of Forged in the Dark games, and this may not make it for everyone, I also wonder how many people that bounced off the larger Blades in the Dark or Bands of Blades might absorb this game, with its slightly less involved and atmospheric setting, and its quicker summary of the core rules.
There is a fun, clearly laid out setting, and if you are a fan of Forged in the Dark games, you should have some interesting rules and structure to examine in this game.
Do you have a favorite game that is goal-oriented, or that has a clearly defined end condition, despite being a more story-based RPG? Does it make it more or less attractive to know that the game has an end state provided in the rules? We want to hear from you below in the comments!Read more »
- Not To Kill: Non Lethal Options In Combat
The situation was all-too-familiar — the characters had subdued a prisoner and were interrogating them. In this case, the game was Forbidden Lands and the prisoner was an Orc. They were able to extract the information they wanted with a few Manipulation rolls and no violence. The Orc’s intentions were clearly evil, and if the situation were reversed he would have killed the characters. The players discussed what to do; kill them or not. No one really liked the killing option, but they had concerns about leaving an enemy behind them as they moved on. After some debate, they decided to kill the orc. Not the most heroic of moments.
The problem is that killing a helpless character in Forbidden Lands is not as easy as that. The game requires you to fail an Empathy check (among a few other things). At that moment, all the players rolled — and passed their checks. None of the characters could bring themselves to kill the orc. The characters instead reinforced their prisoner’s bindings and moved on. As the GM, I told them that doing this took this potential combatant out of any future conflict. Satisfied with that, the players moved on.
It was at that moment that I was pleased that the mechanics of the game made the characters more heroic than the player’s decision, and second, it revealed an issue. There was this unspoken concern about using non-lethal options to resolve conflicts and have it come back on them.
Today, I want to talk about the idea of non-lethal options for resolving conflicts. The idea that not all combats need to result in death, and how we can create room for non-lethal conflicts in our games.
Sometimes Killing Is Acceptable
Before people get all bent…there are times in games where lethal options are fine. Sometimes situations require lethal options. I am not talking about abolishing lethality in games.
What I am talking about here is that if the games we play mechanically discourage non-lethal options, and our GMing style reinforces that, then all we get are lethal solutions; and that is limiting.
Killing In The Name Of…
Honestly, killing in RPGs is made pretty easy — too easy, and there are a number of factors that contribute to this.
In most cases, there are no mechanical consequences for killing. Even in Forbidden Lands, you can kill in the heat of combat without consequences. So there is often no mechanical incentive for not killing.
The next mechanical factor to this is that too few games give mechanics for how to end conflicts without it being total annihilation on one side. First, most games place a high penalty on withdrawing, often granting the opponent a free attack. thus disincentivizing withdrawing from an attack and running away.
Second, too few games have mechanics to surrender as a way that ends the conflict in a finalized manner. Fate is the best example of how to do this correctly. The Conceding mechanic is brilliant. Either side can just declare they can’t go on. They lose the conflict but they exit the combat. Go read it; it’s good.
The last part of this is on us, GMs. It is either a failure to set expectations, lack of trust, or at times some bad GMing. The fear that players have is that combatants that escape will circle around and attack the characters when they are resting, weaker, etc. So players adopt the mentality of leaving no loose ends.
Non-Lethal Options In Our Games
We as consumers of RPGs have less control over how the written mechanics deal with non-lethal solutions to conflicts. Though as a game designer, I do encourage other designers to think more about this and create those mechanics in your games.
As GMs, we do have more control over how non-lethal conflicts work in our games. First, we can house rule mechanics that we want to include for non-lethal options, and second, we can choose to GM in a way where we make non-lethal options available.
Here are some things that you can add to your games to address non-lethal options:
Penalty For Killing
In this house rule, you would assign a mechanical penalty for when someone is killed by a character; something like losing a point of Empathy when you kill.
I am not really a fan of this one, in most games. This is the stick approach, creating a penalty for killing. It will make players resent killing but not really encourage non-lethal options. I put it in here for the sake of completeness, but honestly, I would not go with this for most games.
Withdrawing Without Penalty
So many games have a withdrawing rule that disincentivizes tactical withdrawal from combat, making players feel like the better option is to just keep fighting rather than retreating. I have as both a player and a GM kept combats going because running away was just going to get my character killed.
Allow combatants to withdraw without being exposed to a free attack and both sides will have the option of disengaging.
Steal the Conceded rule from Fate. Don’t even try to make something up yourself. This rule does it great. The game is Pay What You Want on DriveThruRPG. Give them $5 and put this rule in your game.
Some games have this rule and it gets overlooked, and some games lack this rule. Have mechanics where your NPC’s can lose heart and run or surrender. Tactical withdrawals are a valid way to end a conflict and most creatures know when they are outclassed or outgunned. Have criteria for when creatures should run.
If you use this rule, you also should put in the rule about withdrawal from combat, otherwise, your NPCs will want to retreat and then just get cut down.
Down not Dead
When a combatant is reduced to zero health (or the mechanical equivalent in your game), allow the person who delivered the blow to determine if they want the combatant to be unconscious and out of the fight, or dead. The idea being that if they are down, they can no longer participate in the combat, and at some time later they will recover in some form, off-camera.
Mechanics won’t fix everything. We have to also GM our games in a way where these options are possible. Here are some suggestions for what you can do.
Have a discussion with your group on how you want conflicts to work. Introduce any house rules you would like to include and talk about some of the ways you are going to handle non-lethal solutions for conflicts. Make sure everyone is in agreement and understands your intent.
Have Non-Lethal Criteria
When you are planning out your adventures, give your NPCs some kind of logic and motivation. Not every room of goblins should want to fight to the death. If the opposition does want to fight to the death, there should be some story-based reason. Give your NPCs the narrative option to escape, surrender, bribe, etc. their way out of the conflict.
Communicate End of Conflict
When you do use one of your non-lethal options in a scene, communicate to the players that the conflict is over. Tell them that the conflict is over, drop out of initiative order, etc. Signal to the players that the immediate threat has passed, so that they can de-escalate.
I cannot stress this one enough. No double-crosses.
When you do let a group of combatants withdraw or let them bribe their way out of a conflict, that is it. They are out of the combat, adventure, etc. The fastest way to ensure that players will kill everyone in their path is to double-cross them after they have taken a non-lethal solution. Do this once, and you will undermine all of the work you have set out to do. Out is out.
To The Death… No, To the Pain
If you want to play heroic games, we need to have our characters be able to be heroic, and that sometimes means not killing is the more heroic option. The problem is that many RPGs are mechanically neutral or disincentivize non-lethal solutions. That, coupled with our own GMing biases, creates situations where heroic characters do not have compelling choices to be more heroic.
But we are not helpless in this. We can add house rules and we can modify our GMing style to make this possible, to create those options.
How have you addressed non-lethal solutions in your games? Do you have house rules for this? What games have your favorite mechanics for this?Read more »
- VideoGnomecast #103 – RPGaDay Questions, Part 2
Join Jared, J.T., and Pete for part 2 in a series answering questions based on David Chapman’s #RPGaDay social media prompts for 2020! Can these gnomes answer enough questions to avoid being thrown in the stew?