- Fate of Cthulhu Review
I think for today’s review, I’ll look at something nice and simple that shouldn’t be at all controversial. Let me just check the internet for a moment.
Oh. Oh my.
Well, let’s see what this controversy is all about then.
Wait, really? People didn’t know all of that? And there is a rising wave of people with very strong and very constrained opinions on exactly what does and doesn’t count as cosmic horror?
Maybe 2020 really is the gateway to the worst timeline, after all.
By the way, today we’re going to look at Evil Hat’s latest Fate based game, Fate of Cthulhu, a game that is equal parts cosmic horror and Terminator storyline.
The Grimoire of Fate
This review is based on both the physical Fate of Cthulhu hardcover and the PDF version of the product. This game comes in at 258 pages. Do you like green, because you are going to get green. There are four pages of sample characters, a four-page index, and a full-page timeline tracking sheet and character sheet.
If you have seen any previous Fate products from Evil Hat, the formatting on this book is very similar, which means it has some of the clearest formatting of any products in the RPG industry. Bold headers and clear color blocks draw your attention to the right places. Professional, clear, and attractive, without a lot of background embellishment.
The interior is full color, and while Fate products from Evil Hat uniformly have strong, attractive art, this one is especially colorful and atmospheric in presentation.
Disclaimers and Discord
Many modern Cthulhu related game products have begun to put disclaimers about Lovecraft’s history in the products. These can vary from “he was a man of his time” to making a neutral statement about Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia.
Fate of Cthulhu isn’t neutral about any of that. It is a refreshingly blunt statement that not only condemns Lovecraft’s racism, but also calls to light how that racism influenced his work. This is the Lovecraft disclaimer I’ll measure other Lovecraft disclaimers against.
Oddly, this caused a stir online, rallying a segment of Lovecraft fandom to defend Lovecraft and condemn this book. Not only do I want to call attention to what an uncompromising disclaimer looks like, I also want to ask anyone that might read reviews of this product elsewhere to keep this hornet’s nest in mind.
Introduction/Pick Your Apocalypse
The first sections of this game introduce you to the concept of the game. This section makes it pretty clear that the goal of the game isn’t to emulate general cosmic horror investigation. Instead, the protagonists of the story are soldiers from the future coming back through time to attempt to make the future a better place by stopping, or at least mitigating, the coming of some Great Old One (which I noticed abbreviates as GOO, and for some reason that amuses me).
There is a balance in the setup between traditional cosmic horror, and the Fate assumption of competent, proactive player characters. Some of the horrible stuff that the GOO introduces to the world will still happen, but the characters can attempt to give humanity a better future by undoing some of the worst aspects of the apocalypse.
Multiple Great Old Ones and the timelines associated with their arrival are presented. The goal of the player characters is to take what they know about the various events leading up to the arrival of the Great Old One and do what they can to act against that element of their coming.
Character Creation/Fate Condensed/Fate of Cthulhu Fractals
The next section of the book is a streamlined explanation of the Fate Core rules, as well as the unique elements added to the rules to model the Fate of Cthulhu setting. For anyone unfamiliar with Fate, there are four main actions whenever a character rolls–attack, defend, overcome, and create an advantage. The dice are skewed towards providing a 0 result, so in addition to skill ranks added to the roll, invoking aspects, true statements about a character (or place, or thing), is very important to success. Spending a Fate point allows you to invoke your aspects.
The aspects that a character will have are their high concept (the sentence that describes who and what they are), their trouble, a relationship aspect tying them to other player characters, and some free-floating aspects that can add more detail. Fate of Cthulhu also introduces corrupted aspects.
Instead of leaning heavily on a sanity mechanic, Fate of Cthulhu instead focuses on corruption, and the gradual loss of humanity a character suffers from being exposed to cosmic forces. Characters with corrupted aspects gain corruption stunts, which let them do superhuman things, at the cost of more corruption. Characters have a corruption track, and when it fills, another aspect is corrupted. Once you run out of aspects that can be corrupted, your character has lost touch with humanity.
Part of this shift from sanity is an attempt to remove the stigma attached to mental illness, as well as provide a more sensitive vector to explore encroaching doom. There is advice for players that wish to incorporate psychological decay as part of their corruption, the biggest thrust of which is to come up with a detrimental character trait, without attempting to fit that character trait into an incomplete understanding that would imply a specific diagnosis.
This explanation of Fate is also being used as the basis of Fate Condensed; a more streamlined explanation of the Fate Core rules. Most things work the same, but if you are a long term Fate player, the main differences come from what you do with your aspects, greater flexibility with skills, and stress boxes that utilize a 1:1 tracking scheme.
As someone that has gravitated to the Fate Accelerated implementations in Dresden Files Accelerated and Iron Edda Accelerated, I like the streamlining that has been put in place in these rules. I also appreciate how succinctly this section expresses the core concepts of Fate.
Reading a Timeline/The Arrival of . . .
The next section is divided into the broad “Reading a Timeline” section, which explains the timeline sheets and how the timeline is used in play, and then features multiple “The Arrival of . . . “ sections that detail the individual timelines for different Great Old Ones. The detailed timelines include:
- The Arrival of Cthulhu
- The Arrival of Dagon
- The Arrival of Shub-Niggurath
- The Arrival of Nyarlathotep
- The Arrival of The King in Yellow
The timelines are comprised of four events, culminating in a final, fifth event, which is the actual arrival of the Great Old One in question. The four events aren’t locked in place. They are events that will happen, but maybe not at a set, exact date, which means that the players can tackle these events in whatever order they wish.
Each event has a Person, Place, Thing, and Foe, and each one of these has a particular rating based on the face of the Fate die (a plus, minus, or blank). Depending on the face, that determines how troublesome that element of the event is. For example, a “+” person is likely willing to be an ally, that may need to be recruited, and a “-” place is likely a dangerous, hostile environment. Depending on how events resolve, they cascade forward, eventually setting the four boxes for the Great Old One and the Resistance.
This ends up determining how well humanity is prepared to weather the storm, and how weak the Great Old One is when they finally arrive. A strong resistance and a weak Great Old One means maybe that Great Old One can be banished from Earth and the future is far less tumultuous. A strong resistance and a strong Great Old One means humanity may be equipped to survive, but it’s going to be a rough, torturous time of it.
Each of the Great Old Ones has a strong theme, not just in how they manifest (sea creatures, disease, etc.) but in the thematic story elements that weave through the events and the tenor of the apocalypse. For example, Cthulhu’s coming revolves around gathering what has been scattered, and the loss of control. Dagon’s coming revolves around confronting the past and choosing between bad options. Shub-Niggurath’s coming involves cycles, repetition, and persistence. Nyarlathotep’s coming involves the subversion of trust in institutions of authority. The King in Yellow’s coming involves the unpredictable and doubt.
Each of the timelines detail what the resistance knows about events from the future, giving players a good amount of information from which to proceed. There are multiple twists in events that make resolving the events more complicated than the history books might indicate. The various stat blocks that serve as examples in the different timelines also introduce some fun widgets to use in other implementations of Fate, like giving singular, tough opponents additional consequences, or changing the Fate Condensed assumption of 1:1 stress to more stress per box to represent hordes.
In addition to mining the stat blocks for some versatile Fate rules that can be used in other games, the individual timelines were very compelling to read. The twists are all clearly expressed, and don’t feel like “gotcha” moments. They seem like fun plot elements to introduce at the table. I enjoyed how easy it was to see an emergent theme for the different Great Old Ones, and how those themes resonated across all of the events for that timeline.
Being the Game Master/Running a Fate of Cthulhu Campaign/Building Your Own Apocalypse
This section revisits some of the concepts introduced at the beginning of the book, with an eye towards the GM side of the game. It reinforces the Fate point economy, as well as providing some best practices for compels and scene framing. It also discusses the importance of setting stakes for various scenes, and pacing story elements.
From general Fate advice, the next chapters specifically addresses the setting of Fate of Cthulhu. This discusses specifically leveraging elements like corruption and managing corruption and the timeline trackers for the various Great Old Ones.
There is also a chapter that looks at creating unique timelines for Great Old Ones not covered in the book. It discusses emulating other figures from existing cosmic horror stories, as well as creating new Great Old Ones for unique stories. I’m not surprised, since so much of this came through in the individual timeline chapters, but a big focus of this section is about finding a theme for the Great Old One, as well as defining the way the Great Old One accomplishes its goals (for example, its signature supernatural moves and the creatures most likely to serve it).
Riding the Temporal WaveIt has a voice, and that voice is slightly irreverent and definitely action-oriented.
The tone of Fate of Cthulhu is inviting and clear. It has a voice, and that voice is slightly irreverent and definitely action-oriented. The subtle streamlining of the Fate Core rules works well with the natural energetic flow of the book. There are great examples of how to implement the Fate rules built into various stat blocks, and toys like the corruption clock and the corrupted aspects and stunts introduce a new vector of Fate widgets for storytelling.
Collapsing the Waveform
Some of the fun rules widgets that appear in the stat blocks would have been great to call out expressly in the GM section as ways to model narrative items. While I like the way the timeline tracker works and how it models the cascading timeline, it does take a careful read to make sure you understand what’s going on.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you are a fan of Fate in general, this is a great product for summarizing and streamlining the Core implementation of the game. It delivers on the promise of the weird hybrid of Terminator and Lovecraft Mythos, and it wouldn’t take much work to drift the structure of a timeline to other “fix the timeline” style campaigns.
Cosmic horror has been around in roleplaying games for a long time. What are some of the best ways that cosmic horror has been cross-pollinated with other genres over the years? What made that hybrid appealing to you? We would like to hear from you in the comments below.Read more »
- Interesting Foods
Today I’m going to delve a bit into world building. I can see some readers checking out already because they run a pre-published setting like Forgotten Realms or Eberron. Don’t give up on me just yet. This article applies to all GMs, even those running someone else’s material. I’ll be talking about how to make food a little more interesting during those social encounters at feasts, taverns, mead halls, space stations, and cantinas.
The reason this article popped into my head was because of the numerous memes floating around social media that are based on the Lord of the Rings movies. I didn’t do a scientific count, but my gut feel is that about half of those memes are somehow related to food. You know. Second breakfast. Po-Tay-Toes. Things along those lines. The other half are pretty evenly split between something heroic and Gollum’s “my precious.” Out of the 11+ hours of epic battles between small and large, good and evil, magical and mundane, we came away with jokes and memories about food.
That tells me that food is more important to the human condition than simply an intake of calories and nutrients to keep us alive. So let’s dive into how to make it more interesting in our world building moments when presenting food to the players.
For fantasy, the typical fare in a tavern is going to be day-old bread (is bread ever freshly baked in a fantasy setting?), a hunk of large cheese, dried meats, a tankard of nutty ale, and a bowl of greasy stew. Raise your hand if you skimmed that list or tuned out until this sentence started because you already have that list of food memorized. Yeah. Your players do the same thing. What I listed off above is flat boring because it’s been done to death.
Change things up with your fantasy setting. It can be done in a subtle manner, too. You don’t have to go way exotic (though that is an option) for a meal to be memorable. Let’s try this on for size as some “boxed text:”
You’re served a half-loaf of bread with a tangy scent steaming off of it. The soup you’re served is an even mix of yellowish broth, short noodles, and turnip chunks. Alongside the bread is a large bowl of turnip-based salad, and thinly-sliced turnips decorate a plate of dried meats and cheese.
What did I do to change things up? I added turnips and made the bread fresh. The salad is also a change from the traditional fare. Three simple and relatively small changes will make the meal memorable. Of course, by overusing turnips, I’ve driven home that there’s probably a large turnip farm nearby. This can even be shifted into an adventure hook down the road when the PCs return to the tavern and aren’t served turnips at all. This might indicate that something is wrong at the turnip farm, and any adventurer worth their “bowl of greasy stew” will march straight to the farm to investigate.
Science Fiction Food
In science fiction, characters traditionally survive off of rehydrated meat, protein packs or pills, and oddly colored milkshakes of dubious origin. None of it has flavor because apparently flavor is bad for you in the future.
Even if you limit your scope of spacefaring folks to earthlings, you have thousands of cultures and cuisines to borrow from or to mesh together to make things interesting for your food in space. Yes, there might be some limitations on what’s available due to technical reasons and depending on your “tech level” of the game. Assuming some technology more advanced than what is presented in The Expanse series, almost any combination of foodstuff is possible. Using a random country generator, it’s easy to come up with a few countries to merge together. It might take another couple of Google searches to find food from those countries, but get creative and mash them up. Here are some ideas that I came up with in the span of just a couple of minutes:
- General Tso’s Calzone
- Borscht Wonton
- Haggis Ravioli
- Beef Bolognese Pad Thai
- Deep Fried Twinkies
- (This one is more post-apocalyptic because if anything will survive it’ll be deep fat fryers and Twinkies.)
I’m not sure how pleasurable some of those would be to eat, but they’re certainly memorable! The more thoughts your combinations provoke, the more hooks into the world the players will have. This will make the world feel more lived in, more three-dimensional, and more realistic.
Something I’ve learned along the way in my fiction writing career is that readers (in your case, the players) will be more willing to suspend disbelief for the fantastical and wondrous elements of your story (or setting or NPCs or adventure hooks or events) if you give them some solid ground to stand on. Food is one of those footholds. Making the food authentic to a true eating experience, but with a memorable twist, will buy you a considerable amount of goodwill toward the story you’re trying to collaboratively tell at the table.Read more »
- Letting Go Of Your Old Ways
I’m not sure what I expected when I bought a copy of Warhammer: Fantasy Roleplay 4th Edition. Ever since I began my transition, both as a woman and as a better person, I’ve had a complicated relationship with the marquee product of Game’s Workshop.
I always had a love of the dark and gritty. The muddy and painful style of games. It reflected in my early writing. How so much of my creative writing was based on the idea of deconstructing the good and just things, such as superheroes and mankind’s voyages of the stars. Showing the dark underbelly of such. It’d make me a perfect fit for the property of Warhammer.
However, as I began growing as a person, I realized that I wasn’t some dealer of the macabre. I was just a jerk. I would use harmful stereotypes without a care for my privilege. Things that shouldn’t be made light of were carelessly added to characters for the sake of “edge.” Yes, if that placement of word wasn’t an indicator, I realized I was an edgelord.
And Warhammer, like so many properties I used to love, became a reminder of how I used to be. A person I’d rather forget.
So imagine my pleasant discovery when I opened the copy of Warhammer 4th Edition and begun reading through the book.
- Gendered Career Names: Although some Careers have masculine or feminine names because of the limitations of language, all careers are intended for any gender; so, no matter how your character identifies, all careers are available.
This little sidebar caught me by surprise. Inclusive language being utilized in the book. A reference, however small, to genders outside the binary being acknowledged. I remembered Warhammer Fantasy as the series that would rarely have a strong female character, let alone acknowledgment that the “heroes” (It’s still Warhammer, so I use the term loosely) could be any gender identity.
Then, these pleasant surprises only continued.
- Everyone’s invited to the fun: Be welcoming to new or inexperienced players
- Off-limits: Respect people who don’t want sex/violence/horror or other uncomfortable topics in the game, and accept they don’t have to justify why. There are many very good (potentially traumatic) reasons.
- Consideration: Nobody’s fun should come at another’s expense.
And there were many more rules, all as considerate following these, but this trio stood out to me the most because it symbolizes to me something important.
Just as I had grown and matured as a person, so had this game that I previously written off as an “Edgelord Product”.
I realize the amazing creative Team at Cubicle 7 is partially to thank for such an advancement. But, to see a part of the hobby that used to harbour some of the far less savoury and unkinder segments of the community make strides to become a better and safer place, it helped solidify something in my mind.The days of Grimdark and edge are ending. And that’s a good thing.
Now, I still enjoy dark things. I enjoy grim murder mysteries. I find fun in the occasional gory combat. And I adore gray morality in my settings.
What I have left in the past, however, is taking pride in enjoying making others uncomfortable through my own enjoyment. Cos that’s where it stops being about your “tastes” and makes you just an out-and-our jerk of the highest order.
There’s a difference in liking dark stuff and being and edgelord. And the hobby even outside of Warhammer is beginning to realize that.
Shadow Of The Demon Lord, a spiritual successor to Warhammer, takes delight in being deliciously dark. Pair that with a very easy to understand but mechanically satisfying rule system and you have a hit. However, even this game which loves lounging in gruesome and ghastly areas of fantasy is aware that taking joy in triggering your fellow table members is not an OK thing to do.
(…)Before you begin running, talk with your players to establish hard limits on how far you can go in the game. Certain topics might be taboo for some. If so, respect their wishes. Similarly, the players should respect your limits and not push the game in directions that make you uncomfortable(…)
The sidebar appropriately titled “Mature Topics” on page 180 of the core rulebook comes in the middle of discussing how to inject horror into your Shadow Of The Demon Lord game. By placing it where the dark becomes most apparent in the book, the author achieved how important it is to obey the golden rule when it comes to delving into grimdark games.
“Always make sure your table feels safe.”
Like how I mentioned that Shadow Of The Demon Lord is a spiritual successor of Warhammer Fantasy, the PbtA rule system of Urban Shadows wears its inspiration from the Classic World of Darkness on it’s sleeve.
Now, I could go on and on for pages about the history of World of Darkness and how it’s affected gaming culture. But people with far more knowledge than me have spoken on it. And the fact is that we’re not here to talk about Vampire: The Masquerade or Werewolf: The Forsaken. We’re here to talk about Urban Shadows.
Urban Shadows was the first game I ever ran. It was a fun, chaotic and improved adventure that all my players enjoyed playing as much as I did in guiding them through. It was also the game that introduced me to the concept of Safety Tools in RPGs.
The X-Card is a fantastic tool for helping guide your table through potentially upsetting topics. And while I likely would have discovered it without playing, I’m eternally grateful to Urban Shadows for being what led me to discovering it.
Urban Shadows never shies away from the dark, both of gothic, urban fantasy and the sad realities of prejudice, drug use and stereotyping found in our world all too often. Despite this, it in hand with the dark encourages you to always make sure you don’t fall into pitfalls that so many who’ve tried to tackle the same themes fell into.
Avoid Defaultism: (…) Swapping around a few cultural signifiers gets you the same (or better!) creepy punch without falling into boring clichés or dredging up uncomfortable history for people at your table(…)
Lean On The X-Card: (…). Use the X-Card yourself early in the session to demonstrate that it’s safe for players to use, and make sure to honor the system when a player does invoke it, even if you think what they’re flagging is a perfectly reasonable addition to the fiction(…)
Much how in the same vein of how Shadow of the Demon Lord placed the importance of safety in the horror segment of its book, Urban Shadows places these importance rules within their advice for GM’ing section. It symbolizes how making sure your table is safe is equally as important as weaving an interesting story.
There are many games that symbolize this belief and style, of “Respectful Edge” (Cheesy, I know). I like to think it’s the new generation of dark and gritty gaming. Of a world where we leave the dark in the game, not in real life.
Learning From Your Past
I can never change the flaws of my past. But I can learn from them. I can be a better woman from them. I can move forward and be a kinder person everyday because of it. And if this article hasn’t shown already, I’m not the only one.
The TTRPG hobby is not perfect in the present time. Not by a longshot. But with every little step we take like the above, of making sure that even our most grim of games will have the players comfort into account, we’re learning from the mistakes of the past. We’re making better games. Better communities
Be it Warhammer Fantasy realizing inclusion is a far more kinder future. Games like Shadow Of The Demon Lord knowing there’s a limit to everything. Or Urban Shadows advising it’s players to balance confronting the dark with taking into account your own safety, the genre of grimdark is learning from it’s mistakes. And it’s pretty nice to see.
Now if you excuse me, I have a game of Warhammer to get ready for.
Do you have any grimdark systems you feel are making actions to become safer and welcoming?Read more »
- Returning to Olympia in Style w/Agon
As at least 2,661 of you from the Kickstarter might have heard, but Agon is coming out sometime in April! In case some of you are wondering just what Agon is: “Agon is a game of fast-paced heroic adventure inspired by ancient legends,” or at least by how the super successful Kickstarter describes it as. It’s a uniquely paced RPG written by Sean Nitter and the well-proven John Harper. You know, the guy that wrote and designed Blades in the Dark and constantly the target of my System Splicing knife? Honestly, I’ve gutted more mechanics out of Blades in the Dark to shove into other systems than other systems HAVE in mechanics.
Before we start with the legit review, can I start with one major gripe? Agon lets you be either the Scion(distant kid) or the target of an Olympian God’s favor. So how the Hekate is Hekate one of the 12 gods listed in this game and not my sweet Dionysus? They list out literally 11 of the 12 Olympians, but give Dionysus’ seat over to the Goddess of witchcraft and magic? Is it to make the game more family-friendly? Was wine, madness, resurrection, and theatre just too out of it? I understand that the game likely needed to take in some degree of magic, perhaps to appease the wizard pals who want to play this, but I just think it’s a darned shame to use most of the 12 Olympians and make such a massive swap.
Alright, enough of that.
Let’s get started.
Admittedly when I was going through Agon the first couple of times it was actually fairly difficult to get through all of it. There’s a lot to take in and it can be a bit overwhelming—in a way, that’s a good thing. The game, the tone, and how the game plays is such a departure from what I’m used to that it was somewhat difficult to entirely process. I’ve played a lot of different systems between D&D 5e, to FATE, to Rifts(1990), to Genesys, to Savage Worlds, and plenty of others. Even with all of them, I’ve been able to refer to some other similar system on the regular to compare them. Finding something that stood apart from all of that was difficult. However, the very pleasing art and layout are particularly helpful in making it easy to get sucked back into the book.
When running it I noticed how it very much felt like I was telling some sort of epic. The flowchart-like phases for each section made it all feel like an epic. It was less about the individual tales we were telling and it all felt like I was one step above that. It was interesting playing with players not necessarily focused on what they were doing, but always thinking about how it would affect the next immediate narrative phase.
If that makes any sense.
At a Glance
The first thing that anyone can immediately tell is how… /stunning/ it all is. It really calls out to anyone that appreciates solid Greco-roman influences and, honestly, it reminds me a little of Monster Hunter or the movie 300. Admittedly, I’m not exactly culturally acute enough to fully appreciate the attention to detail, but anyone that is would absolutely adore its look. I have a feeling that nowadays not exactly everyone is the most up-to-date on Greco-roman things to be nitpicky about it, so as part of the various unwashed masses I’m loving the whole thing.
Honestly, I’m not even certain if I’m using ‘Greco-roman’ correctly.
The layout is clean and simple and the margins have this beautiful wavy-labyrinthine (have I mentioned I’m unwashed?) outline to it that makes me feel like I’m looking at some epic tapestry or bardic scroll. Evil Hat is always stellar on making their books clean and non-cluttered and this is no exception in the slightest. Reading through it makes me think ‘yeah this is definitely Evil Hat’ at the reins.
I also want to just slide in that Character Creation in this game is just so… clean and crisp. It takes up, at most, 3-pages and is incredibly clear on the role of each decision you make during it. It’s possibly the best example of modern character creation I’ve seen in a long while. The example character sheet fitting right in the end as well is a great reference. “Did I do this right?” isn’t something that many creators seem to care about since it’s obvious to them, but many players do.
Agon uses 4 major ‘Domains of Conflict’ for their skill/conflict & resolution mechanics. This is split between Arts & Oration, Blood & Valor, Craft & Reason, and Resolve & Spirit. All conflicts tend to fall under one of these, and these are represented not in modifiers, but dice. So your Blood & Valor could be a d6 while your Craft & Reason is a d8. Not only are those associated with dice, but also your ‘Name’ or how famous you are, and your ‘Epithet’ or what you’re about.
When you roll various contests, or engagement, or any other conflict resolution mechanics, you typically roll your Name (let’s say d6) and the domain (let’s say Craft & Reason at d8). If your Epithet applies (High-Scholar at d6) you add that dice too. Let’s say you rolled 5, 3, 4. What you do is add the two highest values, or 5+4, for 9. There’s additional dice you can add either using your resources such as Bond (to add your ally’s Name die), taking damage (Pathos) to add additional Domain dice or invoke your Divine Favor from your God to add a d4. Unlike all the other dice, Divine Favor is added to the final result. The rest is simply adding to the pools of fate to draw from.
The rule system reminds me a lot of some form between FATE and OVA: The Anime RPG. FATE because you’re looking to draw on the right situations to pull out your Epithet and Divine Favor to give you an edge; OVA because you simply roll larger and larger pools of dice only to sum up a small number of values. The fact Agon stands out even between those two RPG-oddballs is incredibly striking to hipster swill like me.
Honestly, there’s very little that I can personally say that’ll result in a non-recommendation. This book is glorious from front-to-back with solid and clean mechanics and I would personally recommend folks to pick it up the moment it’s available. However, there’s always something to nitpick.
The main issue I have, at least in the version of the book I’ve got, they currently call the GM, or Gamemaster, the ‘Strife Player.’ I’m of the belief that ‘Strife Player’ isn’t particularly… striking in a way that’s meaningful. Essentially it’s the player that ends up leading the game. From a phonetic stance, Strife Player doesn’t roll off the tongue as cleanly and it doesn’t feel distinctive enough to identify the different roles between the GM and the players. The whole way through the book I kept thinking to myself ‘wait, am I able to assign who the strife player is?’ I imagine this was done to help level the playing field and identify that yes, the GM is ultimately just another player in the grand scheme of things. However, its lack of distinctiveness just added a layer, albeit a thin one, of befuddlement through the reading experience.
I’d personally just suggest going with the classic Gamemaster or Storyteller, or Record Keeper, or Seer, or something. If not, I’d like them to at least refer to the Strife Player in its description to something of those lines in a clearer manner. It’d be easy enough to insert an ‘as the Strife Player, you act as the Game Master of the game and take a role to facilitate the play of the other players-‘ etc etc. There’s a whole section of cultural touchstones in the book for the players, so why can’t the Strife Player have some sort of recognizable reference to their role? It feels like an arbitrary omission.
Another concern I have is how processed it almost feels? The way the game works makes it extremely easy for the GM and players to switch roles and even switch characters. Honestly, this type of game really supports ‘West Marches’ or ‘Troupe’ style of games where you can change up who you are and what you do completely on the fly. While that’s good for some, it doesn’t work for all. It also walks you through its ‘Trials’ and ‘Respite’ phases in a very organized fashion. It has the players consistently hit the same beats of gameplay that, at least for the gaming group I played with, it almost felt samey at each run. For groups that desire revolving players so that no one feels ‘trapped’ as the Gamemaster, Agon is absolutely perfect for them. It really just depends on what you’re looking for.
Agon is an extremely modern game that plays with very old themes. It reminds me a bit, honestly, of Supergiant’s recent hit Hades. It goes back to bring a modern take to old stories, or at least the atmosphere of that time and succeeds greatly in the delivery. As someone that loves trawling and hunting around for old games and mechanics, I can say that Agon is the most extreme departure I’ve seen thus far from tabletops in the 70s and 80s, with no point of reference to folks of that time.
It applies dice mechanics to your name/fame, your title, and it consolidates rolling mechanics to pools of varying dice shapes that sometimes but don’t always get added together. It’s even so different from so many current games that you need to wrap yourself around a new headspace, a new way to think, about how games are played and stories are told. For me, someone that likes to drink upon my aforementioned hipster swill, this game is fresh and exciting. I can see it setting a stage for modern games as would say, Phoenix Dawn Command might have if it was far more accessible.
I’m fairly excited to see what direction Agon takes us, as a community.Read more »
- Descent into Midnight First Look
Games that use the framework originally established by Apocalypse World have often been praised for their ability to model existing genres, due to the ability of the rules to heavily customize results to the narrative. Because the building blocks of most games that have descended from Apocalypse World are moves, and moves can have dramatically different names, calibrated outcomes, and links to other moves, you can have many games that superficially resemble one another, with dramatically different tones and themes.
Apocalypse World itself, while emulating post-apocalyptic stories, doesn’t lean too heavily on any one recognizable property or sub-genre of post-apocalyptic story, but rather takes some tropes from the genre, while creating its own personality and quirks. In some ways, Descent into Midnight is much more like Apocalypse World in execution than some other descendants of the game.
Into the Deep End
Descent into Midnight is a Powered by the Apocalypse game about an undersea civilization. Instead of repeating the structure of stories that deal with lost oceanic cultures or seabed aliens, Descent into Midnight is a game about alien aquatic worlds that do not involve humans, but do involve species with psionic powers and bioengineering technology, fighting for the stability of their community against an encroaching Corruption.
While certain setting elements are assumed to be true across game tables (aquatic environments, no human beings in the world), other aspects of the setting, such as the actual nature and form of the Corruption, are up to the table to decide. Part of the process of playing the game is creating a Community, and asking some questions about how it functions.
There are no set guidelines as to what species populate this community, although there are some suggestions based on various aquatic species given in the beta rules. The playbooks currently included in the playtest packet include the following:
- The Awakened
- The Cultivator
- The Empath
- The Muse
- The Orator
- The Redeemed
- The Seeker
- The Specialist
- The Touchstone
- The Traveler
In addition to the individual playbooks used by each player, there is also a community playbook, and players can spend their advancements to add elements to the community as well as their own abilities.
Communicating a Theme
The playtest material stresses that at the heart of this game is a sense of community, contemplation, and awareness of the consequences of actions that are taken. The players take the role of defenders of the community, but it is important to assess what actions must be taken in order to rectify a situation.
The stats used in the game are Hope, Altruism, Community, Calm, and Drive, and the names really set the tone for the expected play style. The one move in the game dedicated to doing violence intentionally isn’t based on stats, but on the number of affirmative responses to questions that interrogate the mindset of the character attempting to solve a situation with violence.
Much like Masks, Descent into Midnight doesn’t track harm, but instead tracks conditions that speak to the state that an individual character is in once they have taken actions. One of my favorite things from the playtest document is the move “What Have We Done,” which is triggered when characters stop and think about the actions that they have taken.
On one hand, it struck me as a bit amusing, because I’ve thought about all of the times when I’ve actually said that in an RPG session after things have spiraled out of control, but I am also reminded how often our group moved on rather quickly from that flash of insight back into the core loop of the game, because contemplating the consequences of actions wasn’t a mechanized component of play. I love that it is in these rules.
The Community of GnomesThere are wonderful leading questions that make every community unique and interesting.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to schedule a playtest of the rules myself, so I decided to call in the experts. When I started gathering information to write this first look, I reached out to some of my fellow Gnomes to see what they had to say about their experiences. Here are the answers I received:
Review Gnome (Me):
What was your favorite part of Descent into Midnight?
Creating our undersea community was awesome! There are wonderful leading questions that make every community unique and interesting. In the game we played on She’s A Super Geek, we ended up with big fish that functioned as public transportation, eel based cell phones, and doctor crabs. These elements all came up in our actual adventure in the best ways.
My playtest was quite some time ago, so I’m sure many of the mechanics of the game have been refined and evolved from where they were, but I know the heart of the game then was the character creation. We were encouraged to think beyond being humanoid characters and delve into the beautiful and vast biodiversity of the oceans and seas of our world, or even beyond.
Every character created during the game I played was unique and amazing. Mine was an empathic healer named Dellannia, partially looking like a seal, but with octopus-like tentacles for her lower half, allowing for graceful movement and fine manipulation.
Review Gnome (Still Me):
What makes Descent into Midnight different from other Powered by the Apocalypse games?
This is not completely unique anymore, but it’s not a game about violence. It’s almost more investigatory, and definitely about being local trusted pillars of the community.
I can’t speak to specific mechanics, but I particularly appreciated the emphasis on community problem solving and cooperation among the characters.
Review Gnome (Continues to be Me):
Who do you think will most enjoy Descent into Midnight?
Anyone interested in the ocean or playing in different and interesting locations–it’s an extremely unique setting and it makes you think about world-building differently. People who like playing with problem-solving and being community protectors will definitely love this. Fans of PbtA games won’t find anything shocking here, but it clicks along just fine.
This game would be good for anyone who enjoys exploring truly alien cultures but are still founded in an emotional reality. Placing it an aquatic setting already moves it beyond what we are accustomed to in our daily lives, but the game works hard to ground the emotional center of the game in the way the characters interact with their community. Also, there’s the whole PbtA aspect which can encourage people to try genres they may not have otherwise looked at. It’s definitely worth diving into. (HA!)
Coming Up For Air
What I have read of this setting has me very interested to see how the final product develops. There is already a very strong set of tools in place for first sessions, advice on running one shots, lists of potential inciting incidents and events, and even some nice scripts for introducing the setting and the assumed gameplay to a group that may not know what the game is about going into a session.I particularly appreciated the emphasis on community problem solving and cooperation among the characters.
There is a lot of discussion of safety in the playtest rules, although not a dedicated safety section (not something I’m going to fault the playtest version of rules for, especially when there are so many call-outs to being aware of practicing safety techniques at the table). The only concern I really had is just my own personal hang-ups.
I may not be the target demographic for this game, but it greatly appeals to me. However, both the expansive nature of the ocean, and the potential for aquatic environments to become claustrophobic are called out as key elements of the setting, and as someone that has a fear of being submerged and is claustrophobic, I worry if too much of the key experience is going to be lost on me due to my own personal issues.
What I read doesn’t lead me to believe so, and I really want to see more in the finished product about how to evoke the wonder of the deep, as well as any additional inspiration the designers care to cite.
Would You Like to Know More?
If you have any other questions, please feel free to reach out to the designers at: email@example.com, or on Twitter @DiMRPG. If you are interested in streaming actual play shows, the first stretch goal for the Kickstarter is a streaming show being made by Eric Campbell, producer and Game Master of Callisto 6, Shield of Tomorrow, and Clear Skies, along with QueueTimes Studios in Los Angeles. The Kickstarter launched on February 15th, and is running for 30 days.
Do you have a favorite aquatic setting for RPGs? What is it about an undersea campaign that excites you? How often have you attempted to play a game where you are adopting a truly non-human mindset? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!Read more »
- Infinite Galaxies Review
Space Opera is one of the earliest genres to enter the roleplaying game space, along with fantasy and cosmic horror. While it’s never quite broken through to the same popularity, space opera is always out there, on the fringes of imagination, waiting to go where no campaign has gone before.
If you have never seen the term before, Space Opera is a sub-genre of science fiction where scientific accuracy often takes a back seat to adventures that involve starships, multiple planets, and melodramatic storylines. If you’ve seen Star Wars or Star Trek, you know the genre, even if you didn’t think you knew it.
Today we’re going to look at Infinite Galaxies—Roleplaying in a Bright Future.
This review is based on the PDF and physical copy of Infinite Galaxies. The book is 298 pages, with a full-color cover and black and white interior art in both the printed book and PDF. There is a two-page index and three pages of Kickstarter backers.
The layout of the pages has a starfield border, with a faux-computer display at the top right-hand page. The pages are single column, with clear, bold headers, and chapter introductions have full-page black and white artwork. The gear, vessels, and mounts sections all have separate tables and various illustrations of the topics in those sections.
All of the artwork is attractive and professional, but it does feel like some of the art is thematically dissonant from some of the other pieces in the book.
Physically, the book is a paperback, and digest-sized. The black and white pages are clear and well reproduced, although the thickness combined with the size of the book makes it warp a bit. The front and back artwork looks great in physical form.
Part One: The Basics
The opening sections of the book describe the type of action that the game is seeking to present. Very early on it explicitly mentions playing in a bright future, with positively motivated heroes, and that the biggest inspirations for the game are Star Wars and Star Trek. It mentions being flexible in providing a framework for a wide range of space opera stories, as well as providing a default setting for players that want to engage with it.
Early in the “How to Play” section, we get a detailed explanation of game terms that will be used in the book. Many of them may be familiar to people that have experienced Powered by the Apocalypse games before, but I don’t remember many that are this thorough with terminology explanations this early in the book.
If you aren’t familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games, it examines the 2d6 + stat resolution mechanic, and the three-tiered outcomes of moves (miss with complication, success with complication, success), and the basic moves (those not associated with a specific playbook) are presented in the section as well. While most of the moves are very straightforward, there are a few more fiddly mechanics presented in this section as well (such as using gear and restocks, which allow for expendable gear to be replenished under certain circumstances).
The How to GM section gives some example NPCs suitable for a space opera setting. These include hostile cyborgs, explorers, pilots, merchants, raiders, military, diplomats, smugglers, robots, and beasts in various descriptions.
There are also several pages on running your first session, and how to deal with characters with multiple playbooks (unlike some PbtA games, Infinite Galaxies only recommends distinct starting packages, with some overlap between playbooks working on a conceptual level).
It’s a very solid, informational, well-detailed start to the book. That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the sample playgroup, used throughout the book from this point on, appears to be an all-male group, with all-male characters except for one, who is playing a character that uses she/her pronouns. That feels like a huge missed opportunity for inclusion just in the examples.
While it’s present in a lot of science fiction, some of the raider stat blocks also fall back on some uncomfortable “tribal warrior/warrior culture” stereotypes in portraying one of the setting villains.
Part Two: Characters and Gear
The next section of the book gives a breakdown of character creation, playbooks, and gear. Gear, in this case, includes starships, vehicles, mounts, and tools. This is probably the biggest section of the book, but much of that is from the various descriptions of gear, vehicles, and mounts, many of which are summarized in charts.
The beginning of the character creation section has a nicely organized checklist for how to walk through the process of creating characters. In addition to picking playbooks and assigning statistics, players will also be picking a starting package for their character (if the playbook is your class, the starting package is your sub-class or customization), as well as establishing relationships with other characters.
The playbooks include the following:
- The Ace
- The Explorer
- The Jack
- The Leader
- The Psi
- The Robot
- The Scientist
- The Soldier
There are additional playbooks for The Ship and The Companion. The Ship is a function of The Ace playbook, and The Companion is an advance that players can take to have their own personal best friend/sidekick. Each playbook has a set of drives, relationships, starting equipment, and origins. Except for The Robot, one of the origins on each playbook is expressly for “alien” characters.
Relationships work very similarly to the bonds in Dungeon World, where you have a series of fill in the blank questions, although one relationship will be special, that rolls with an extra bonus in instances where other relationships come into play.
The drives are specific things that a character wants to accomplish. For each milestone (established subsections of the story that the GM can declare), players pick two drives for their character, which act as XP triggers. Players can swap these drives whenever the GM determines that a milestone has been met and a new one is active.
Infinite Galaxies wears a lot of its Dungeon World DNA on its sleeve in the playbooks. Instead of having a more space opera-themed set of stats, the game goes with STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, and CHA, and many of the wilderness exploration moves from Dungeon World are still expressed in this game, interacting with rations and disposable survival gear. Depending on the type of space opera you are familiar with, the wilderness moves and gear feel like they could easily not come up if no one takes a scout, and no milestones call for heavy exploration of planetary wilderness for extended periods.
Characters can be harmed in multiple ways. They can take debilities to ability scores, they can take vitality damage, or they can take wounds. Wounds are generally lasting injuries that are marked when a character has run out of vitality, which is much easier to regenerate. Not unlike Dungeon World, each playbook has an assigned damage die that the player rolls to determine damage, if a move indicates they do so.
Gear takes up a bit of space, because it does have a bit more granularity than PbtA games often give gear. In addition to having tags that generally function as narrative guides or permission, some rules govern the difference between personal and vehicle scale damage, boosts to the damage dice being rolled, gear that can ignore armor, and medical treatments that can remove injuries from characters.
Part Three: Setting
This section spends time detailing what you should have ready to draw from if you are creating your own setting, the importance of having a theme and tone in mind, as well as a few pages painting the broad strokes of the assumed baseline setting of the book, the Star Patrol setting.
In addition to providing some checklists for things to include, and guidelines for establishing theme and tone, this section also spends time on the importance of how technology is expressed, and how naming conventions play into choices on theme and tone. There is even some discussion on how to change or create new playbooks to fit a customized setting.
This is really great high level, high concept information on setting, and even though the next section moves into story, specifically, there were a few places where I wished they had drilled down a little more on one of the many big topics they touch on in this section. What they do is good, but it remains at the higher conceptual levels for much of the discussion.
Part Four: Story
A lot of the story section is focused on an area that is often overlooked, which is reading player input. There are discussions about asking good questions, taking worthwhile feedback, and reading choices in playbooks and gear as communication about the types of stories and the direction the players want the game to move.
What I wish we had a little more of in this section are example story arcs. Space opera is a huge genre, and while the book spends a lot of time looking at big arcs and ways to make settings memorable, it doesn’t give many examples of exactly what a group of adventurers might be in the setting. While part of this is going to be reading player desire, having some framing conventions going in would be welcome as well.
For example, we’re told a little about Star Patrol, and what side Earth is on, and who the main enemies are. But we aren’t told what a fighter pilot squadron as an adventuring team would look like, versus smugglers and bounty hunters in the border regions, versus a team of relief workers going to galactic disaster sites. I wanted just a little bit more campaign framework level concepting.
The final section has a grab bag of different materials in it. First is the section for thanks and the Kickstarter backers. Next is the section that gives more detail on the Star Patrol setting. That detail comes in the form of more detail on various power groups, geographical sectors of the galaxy, and specific alien options that can be swapped for the more generic alien origins given on the playbooks, to customize the species active in the setting.
Punch ItFor anyone with a passing interest in space opera, it should be very easy for a new player to see something they recognize from their favorite media, and customize the character they want to play quickly.
I enjoy how clearly the playbooks convey space opera archetypes, and I like how flexible the starting packages for each of the playbooks make them. Just the choice of playbooks and packages can easily inform the kind of game a group will be playing. This is one of the best Powered by the Apocalypse games for explaining exactly what the terminology used in the game means, spending more time on deliberately explaining soft versus hard moves and the transition between then.
From an “at the table” perspective, I’ve run this game at multiple conventions during the “beta” phase of production, and I ran it for several players that had no experience with PbtA games previously. It was very easy for them to pick up on the archetypes and understand them, and the drives worked well to push them towards resolving the jobs and dilemmas I was establishing with milestones.
They Told Me They Fixed It
The game does a great job of explaining all the terminology that it uses, but it feels like it borrows more from Dungeon World than it needs to convey a space opera setting. The ability scores don’t inform the feel of the setting in the same way other PbtA game stats do, because Dungeon World is calling back to Dungeons and Dragons, which isn’t what Infinite Galaxies does.
Using multiple polyhedral damage dice, and having exploration moves that hearken to ration use and encumbrance are a few other artifacts that I don’t think resonate with a game that is trying to capture the feel of stories like Star Wars or Star Trek. They aren’t poorly written or expressed rules, just rules that don’t feel like they are as relevant to the extant tropes.
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
Infinite Galaxies is a solidly written and expressed game that will give you all the tools you need to run an exciting space opera game. For anyone with a passing interest in space opera, it should be very easy for a new player to see something they recognize from their favorite media, and customize the character they want to play quickly.
It loses some of its edge by not fine-tuning a few of the borrowed pieces of Dungeon World tech to fully align the game with the genre and tropes that it is playing with. It does what it does well, it just might have done it with a stronger adherence to tone by cutting loose a few more rough edges.
What are some of your all-time favorite science fiction RPGs? How often have you played in space opera campaigns? Do you favor existing pop-culture settings, or settings that have been unique to your group? We would love to hear your answers in the comments below. I’ll keep hailing frequencies open for them.Read more »
- Moodlists; Making Better Playlists
I believe anyone would agree that the right kind of music can improve any given situation. However I find that it’s done too similarly to video games; scenes and situations are given one song to codify them. That sort is often insufficient and distracting in tabletops as is, but scenes are typically measured in hours, not minutes. With this article, I’d like to introduce to you how I make playlists based on moods, and how a bit of effort can go the distance, and last you an eternity.
The Current Situation
Most gamemasters I’m aware of in the modern age produce playlists of two sorts: they either have lists of ambient noises(such as taverns and fields), or they have a single song tied to each situation.
Ambient noises are interesting in that they are included in order to improve immersion. This can work for gentle and immersive scenes, but, however, I find that all it does is fill up background noise in a manner that does not capitalize on the ability to ascribe emotional meaning to a situation.
On the other hand, having a single song can add emotional quality to a situation. This is common to the experiences of gamers used to Original Sound Tracks (OSTs). However, it doesn’t translate incredibly well to the timespan of tabletops. A scene in-game that lasts only a few minutes is easily half an hour to an hour or more in a tabletop. Those emotional 3-minute songs end up being replayed 10, 20, 30 times before the scene shifts.
Which gets dull really, really quickly.
Di’s Moodlist Proposal
I prepare playlists based on one simple idea: Moods.
In essence, it’s about trying to capture the right overarching feeling and emotion of the scene. The exact song doesn’t matter as much as the general tone of the unfolding events. It sacrifices a bit of that ‘perfect song for the perfect moment’ for a bit of overall ease and less fiddling with your music bars. The GM does so much already so you should be trying to reduce the amount of work you’re doing whenever you can!
You don’t have to do the moods I have here; rather, you choose the sort of moods you want in your own game. Personally, I tend to populate these moodlists with video game or anime OSTs. Specifically, the instrumental songs lacking vocals. Often at the table, there are already 6+ people clamoring to talk over one another—why add another?
When I fill my moodlists I can often find a single song fitting several moods. For example, the amount of times I have “Forest” and “Peaceful” songs overlap is rather high. In these cases, I tend to lean on only having it in one of the moodlists, but will place it in multiple if the situation calls for it.
When I play these, I put them completely on random, allowing the songs to cycle through the plethora of songs available. In order to get a good variety of songs, I tend to have a minimum of 10 songs per moodlist, but my “Cutscene” and “Peaceful” ones have nearly 30 apiece.
The Last Note
The main major downside behind this is that it takes quite a bit of time to generate these lists. You need to listen to a large amount of music and effectively sort it into your games. Plus, if you want your different campaigns to have certain tones, you’re going to have to generate several full-on campaign-specific playlists. This can eat up a lot of time sorting music, a lot of money buying OSTs, and a lot of space on your mp3 players. Honestly, I have a 16gb tablet I mostly only use to store music and browse the internet.
On the upside, however, with a bit of time and effort, these moodlists can last you far more in the long run. The main one I use for fantasy has lasted me 2-years so far and I haven’t found a pressing need to improve on it aside from the incidental updates. With less fiddling with music, you can even delegate one of your players to change the music! Just tell them to change to “City, Lively” and be on your way! Plus, every once in a while you get a situation where the mood epically changes to a critical hit.
And trust me: for your players that’ll feel really really good.
-Di, signing outRead more »
- GM Currencies and Building Trust
I’ve seen some recent discussion online regarding rules that constrain and inform how game moderators modify ongoing narratives in games, and this made me think about why I like GM currencies. In many cases, these narrative changing rules default back to some kind of GM currency, either by providing players with a resource to spend or by limiting the amount of GM modification that can be expected by mapping those modifications to a pool of resources. Most of what we are going to explore in this post involve a more traditional game structure, where the GM frames the setting and the scenes, and the PCs interact with those scenes. This is by no means the only RPG structure in existence, but it is the setup most likely to spawn a debate on the efficacy of GM currencies or constrained scene modifications.
What I would like to explore is how GM currencies can act to reinforce trust in a roleplaying game session. Even a GM that has been playing with a group for a long period of time is still reinforcing or straining the level of trust they have every time they present a scenario that involves conflict. A GM that sits down with a group of new players may have the complete trust of their players, because those players have no reason not to trust their GM to fairly introduce elements into a game, and a GM that has been running for years, may still introduce difficulties and evolving complications in a manner that alienates a group of long term players.
What am I talking about when I refer to GM currencies? For this post, I’m going to be looking at game rules that do one of the following:
- Provide the GM with a resource they can give to players to entice the players to perform in a specific manner, even if the currency is unlimited on the GM’s side of things
- Provide the GM a pool that they can spend to introduce new elements into a scene after the scene has already been established
- Provide the GM a pool that they can spend to increase the established difficulty of a given task
- Provide the GM a pool they can spend to increase the odds that GM controlled characters can complete a given task
- Provide the GM a pool of points that allow them to undertake a specific action that should be rare and meaningful in the genre emulated
An example of an unlimited resource that a GM can use to entice behavior might be fate points in Fate, where characters might be compelled to play to their character aspects, bennies in Savage Worlds, when a player suffers the disadvantages of their flaws, or hero points in Mutants and Masterminds when a character’s weaknesses or relationships have a bearing on the narrative. Players do not do what is optimal in the situation, but is logical for their traits, in the short term, to get a benefit they can use later on in the game.
An example of a resource that can be used to introduce elements into a game after a scene has already been established might be threat from Star Trek Adventures, a despair result from Genesys, or the dice in the Doom Pool in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. In these cases, a scene has been described and players have interacted with that scene, but now a new challenge or element of the scene can evolve that may not have been set in the narrative from the beginning of the framing sequence.
In many cases, GM currencies might serve dual purposes. Some of the currencies mentioned above that can be used to add a new complication to a scene might also be spent to increase the likelihood of an NPC action succeeding. For example, that same die from the Doom Pool in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying that may have introduced a countdown of some kind may just add an extra die to the pool of a villain taking an action. The same threat spent in Star Trek Adventures to create a blanket complication situationally affecting actions in a scene may be spent to add an extra die to an NPCs dice pool when they resolve a task.
In some games, some actions are restricted by GM currencies, to emphasize that the action being taken is rare and meaningful. For example, a villain in 7th Sea 2nd Edition has to spend a point from the danger pool to strike a mortal blow on a hero, and in Star Trek Adventures, an NPC that attempts to finish off a wounded player character has to spend threat to do so. This reinforces the idea that death is a consequence in these stories, but not until there is a certain amount of tension established first.
With and Without Spending Limits
To illustrate how GM currencies might reinforce a greater level of trust at a game table, let’s look at a situation that might come up in a game, and how that situation is framed. Our base situation is going to see our heroes fighting hostile forces on a narrow bridge. Implicit in this framing is that opponents might harm the PCs, and that the PCs might be forced off the bridge.
Next, let’s look at a development that we might introduce into the scene. The bridge starts to deteriorate. Even PCs that aren’t near the edge might fall off into the darkness below, so falling becomes a greater threat than it was when it would only be the consequence of not resisting the efforts of an opponent forcing the PC off the bridge.
In a game without GM currency, the GM may have this idea in their head going into the fight, and they may even want to make sure it feels fair for this situation to evolve, so they add into their description of the bridge the cracks and weathered appearance of the bridge, to telegraph the potential for the bridge to fall apart.
After a few rounds of combat, the GM decides to pull the trigger on the crumbling bridge, and a PC falls into the abyss below. That PC is now upset, because while the state of the bridge may not have been pristine, the narrative thrust of the description was more focused on the lack of handrails and the opposing force, not the deteriorating state of the bridge.
Currency and Negotiation
Often, GM currency introduces an element of negotiation into the game. For example, in a Cypher System game, a GM can introduce an Intrusion, and the player has the option of paying off the offered intrusion with their own resource. This is also true in Fate, when a GM offers a fate point to compel an aspect. As long as the PC has a pool of resources themselves, they can negate the spending of GM currency to modify the narrative.
As part of this negotiation, clarification of intent can be practiced.
“If my character falls off the bridge, will they die?”
“No, I don’t want to give too much away, but death isn’t one of the stakes of this situation.”
“Am I going to end up getting injured?”
“No, just taken to another location that we can cut to after this fight.”
“Okay, I’m in, let’s do it.”
Even in games where there isn’t an implicit negotiation process, the GM spending the resource is often taking the time to explain how the narrative is evolving in ways that make the changing dynamic clear.
“I’m spending threat to introduce a Cosmic Storm (3) complication into this scene.”
“What does that mean?”
“Any task involving long-range communication with electronics, the ship’s sensors, or the transporter have their difficulties increased by three.”
Navigating Difficult Areas
There have traditionally been areas where it is difficult for a GM to assert narrative control without also creating the feeling of removing agency from players. For example, when characters are mind controlled or when they might be affected by fear. GM currencies can help in these situations.
In many Powered by the Apocalypse games, some moves generate hold for a GM to spend to introduce negative elements. Having a set amount of hold to spend reinforces that the negative consequences introduced will have a finite number of recurring instances. In Fate, creating an aspect of fear is mainly going to give an NPC another aspect to compel, but it’s now available as a source of fate points for a PC that wants to compel this aspect on themselves, giving them greater agency in how they want to express that fear. In Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, characters that have a Mind-Controlled complication provide NPCs with extra dice for their action pool, but the player can also roleplay the mind control to generate plot points for their character before they are complicated out of the scene.
In this way, traditionally difficult situations where a player may lose agency can instead be handled by allowing for some minor setback, which the PC can make into a more significant setback when they choose, to access the game’s economy.
Trust Your Feelings
While a lot of the discussion about GM currencies can be framed as building trust between players and the GM, one of my favorite aspects of GM currencies is that it may allow you to build trust in yourself. One of the greatest dilemmas of the GM can be paraphrased in the words of the great Dr. Ian Malcom:
“…your [Game Masters] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Sometimes it’s hard to know when to introduce twists or increased difficulty into a game, and having an ever-growing pool of some GM resources can help create a natural trigger for pushing the narrative of the game. Having examples of what the GM resource can do when spent can help to make the process of deciding what will happen to make the scene more complicated easier to adjudicate.
If you are in pitched combat, but your dice have just not been making your villains seem like the threat they should be, boosting their competency might be a good spend. If a scene is getting predictable or has played out like an earlier scene, introducing a complication may be a good way to spend that pool. If your players have relied on a specific set of gear or circumstances in multiple scenes, spending points from the pool to deny or complicate the PC’s assets may be a logical direction.
It can be very difficult even from the GM side of the game to determine if taking away a piece of equipment, or keeping the PCs from being able to leave a planet is being arbitrary or falls into the dreaded category of “railroading,” but when there is a finite resource being used, the GM can feel more confident that they aren’t being arbitrary. Spending the GM resource is part of the game, and it will only happen when the GM has the resource to spend.
Not every game with the traditional GM/Player dynamic has GM currencies, and because so many traditional games have not used this dynamic, this may make the introduction of enumerated constraints seem . . . unnatural.
That said, a lot of discussions about creativity touch on the idea that constrained creativity can produce better results than leaving all possibilities open. Using most of the tropes of a genre makes it more impactful when you deviate from another trope. Making sure everyone knows what the “rules” of the universe are going into a story makes people more comfortable when following the narrative of the present story, rather than devoting effort to understanding complex world-building that is intentionally overflowing traditional bounds.Having examples of what the GM resource can do when spent can help to make the process of deciding what will happen to make the scene more complicated easier to adjudicate.None of that is saying that working without a net, so to speak, is bad, just that it is a greater cognitive load, and for purposes of what we are discussing here, it is also a situation that requires more trust to be extended. There are times when the energy that it takes to manage expectations and read the natural level of engagement and frustration might be better invested down narrower storytelling pathways.
Additionally, if you like the idea of the trust engendered with GM currencies, there may be ways to work it into games where it doesn’t already exist. For example, instead of rolling for random encounters, have the group make skill checks to scout a location, and add points to a pool for failures. When exploration gets stale, spend those failed scouting checks as “encounter points” to liven up a natural lull in the game. Instead of waiting for players to actively roleplay their traits, look for situations where that trait would naturally trigger a fun interaction, and bargain some inspiration for the player, contingent on a mutually agreed upon display of a given trait.
One thing that I want to make clear is that I very rarely advocate for a single solution to every situation. There may be games that work fine without GM currencies or specific GM narrative constraints, and there may be groups for which it doesn’t work. All I ask, as I continually ask, is for people to consider why these game designs exist, and to actively, intentionally include or exclude elements from your games.
What was the first game you encountered with GM currencies? What is your favorite GM currency? What GM actions would you prefer to be governed by a limited currency? We want to hear from you below! We’ll keep an eye out for your comments.Read more »