Category: Theory and Design

Karma, Drama and Fortune redux

You probably already know that Everway has three different ways of resolving tasks: Karma, Drama and Fortune.

Did this come before or after Threefold theory? Certainly they were adopted by GNS theory but seemingly as mutually exclusive goals.

But that’s not what Everway’s system did. Not only was the GM free to use whichever method of resolution suited them at the time, these methods form a continuity.


All Tasks start in the middle with a player wanting to achieve something. It may or may not be articulated as simply as “I want”; it could be implied, it may be teased out with conversation, there may be context and conditions. But a combination of Karma, Drama and Fortune can be used to negotiate what the player wants and get to some kind of outcome.

The graphic assumes a couple of things:

  1. As soon as we know what the task is, the GM can move to any one of the three options.
  2. Once you’re at one option, you’re free to switch to another option.
  3. However it’s most likely that people will start at Karma and then move to Drama or Fortune (directly, or via Drama). The reasons for this are below.
  4. The three approaches arrive at the end states in three different ways; one by dice, one by GM adjudication, and one by either a consensus between players or by the GM imposing plot on the players.


This is what the Everway playing guide says about karma on p124:

When applying the law of karma you, as the gamemaster, assess the difficulty of the task, judge the capability of the hero attempting the task, and rule on the result. The hero succeeds if, in your judgement, the hero has the abilities necessary to meet the challenge of the task. The hero fails if, in your judgement, the task is too difficult for the hero’s capabilities.

Going in, karma is a short-cut. If a PC is up to a task then let them have the outcome they’re going for; and if they’re not, don’t waste their time with making them roll dice — especially if the fail outcome is simply “you don’t get the thing” without any other consequence.

This is why karma is often good as an opening position for resolving any task. Drama may be all about what benefits the plot, but karma is in some ways about cutting out what doesn’t benefit the plot and just slows everything down.

If there’s no clear-cut Yes or No what happens next will probably be a bit of negotiation — either prompted by the GM asking how they achieve that, or more detail volunteered by the player. These start to become blow by blow plans, etc. This can go one of two ways: either a lot of back and forth between players and GM (drama) or going to the dice (fortune).


From the Everway playing guide, p126:

When applying the law of drama you, as the gamemaster, the needs of the plot determine the outcome of events. As in a novel or play, events proceed in such a way as to make the plot and story more engaging and enjoyable. The hero succeeds if doing so helps the plot. The hero fails if that helps the plot.

The role of drama is to make sure things happen that are interesting and everyone engaged and invested in the plot.

The problem with drama is… how does the GM judge that to be the case? Occasionally it’s easy, e.g. drama says the PCs must find a clue here to keep things moving. Sometimes, the GM will be working from a script and have prepared set pieces or bangs. Most of the time though the plot will arise from a back-and-forth conversation, etc. And specifically for task resolution, some players love to talk their way through their plans and every step of their actions — a process of exposition that’s dramatic.

Effectively you have a natural progression from karma into drama. At the start when a player says “I want to do XXX” and the GM asks them “how?” they’re starting a conversation and inviting a whole load of dramatic play.

So, when does the GM go straight to drama without going through karma first? Usually when there’s an obstacle but it’s not quite clear what the task is — prompting the players to talk around the situation until they get what they want.

To truly resolve by drama one of two things happen: either the players agree how the plot is going forward, or the GM imposes plot on everyone. This isn’t really the same as the GM judging the outcome based on ability, and in general it can feel anticlimactic (either because everything ends in agreement, or because the GM just narrates an ending).

What’s much more likely to happen is that the drama comes to a head and calls for a dice roll, so moves into the realm of fortune. It can do this naturally because all that conversation is setting stakes and bringing everything to a head.


The Everway playing guide, p128:

When you, as the gamemaster, apply the law of fortune, a card from the Fortune Deck determines the outcome of an action. If the card’s meaning is positive, the event in the game world is positive for the hero. If the card’s meaning is negative, the event or outcome is negative.

Everway suggests drawing cards for an immediate yes/no judgement, and also for Tarot-like long-term interpretations, and also to improvise results or developments.

You can arrive at fortune from three ways:

  1. Start at karma; the task is clear but there’s no clear yes/no answer, in which case call for a dice roll.
  2. Start at drama; talk until things come to a head and the need for a yes/no, then call for a dice roll.
  3. Go straight to fortune.

I’m going to argue that many times a dice roll is called for the thought process of GM and players have gone through karma and or drama first, setting up the context for the random roll. So the times when people go straight to fortune without thinking about karma/drama is when they’re not really invested in the balance of power or the outcome; they just want something new and interesting to happen that isn’t directly coloured by player or GM invention. Sounds counter-intuitive, but this is exactly what random tables are for, and they work.

Final Remarks

The argument above is that karma, drama and fortune form a continuity rather than three separate techniques. I don’t think this is revelatory — more I’ve just said aloud what any good GM with experience has internalised by trial and error. But there are some essential learnings for me at least.

First, always assume the PCs have competence, even if they lack expertise. So if you’re applying the law of karma, assume the PC is judging the situation rather than committing to it. This means that if the task is beyond their abilities they don’t even attempt the task — so they either succeed or they don’t attempt it.

Second, try not to waste people’s time. Don’t roll dice when there’s no real risk. Don’t have players grubbing in the dark for clues when they will inevitably find those clues anyway.

Third, the players will tell you which direction they want to go. This is part of the big drama conversation. The conclusion to that conversation can be one of three things: agree with the players and go with their plot, or disagree and impose your own, or set stakes and go to the dice.

Fourth, do not neglect the power of a random table, card draw or dice roll from a completely neutral position.

Another Roll-Under

OSR games often feature rolling under attributes for pass/fail task resolving; it’s simpler than calculating bonuses from attributes, setting target numbers, etc.

Here is a mashup of OSR roll-under-attribute (specifically something like Whitehack) and PbtA pass/pass with consequences/fail with MC move.

When you take an action and the GM says you need to make a roll, it will be against one of your attributes. Roll a D20 and compare the result with the attribute number.

  • if the result is higher than your attribute, you fail with consequences
  • if the result is below your attribute and 10 or above, you succeed
  • if the result is below your attribute but 9 or lower, you may succeed at cost
  • if the result is exactly your attribute it’s a critical success

Cost or Consequences

Consequences happen when you try and fail (if there were no consequences, ask why you needed a die roll in the first place). Consequences can be made up by the GM on the spot or picked from a list (much like a MC move in Apocalypse World).

Success with a Cost is like paying Consequences to get the Success you wanted. The Cost of Success could be the same as the Consequences of Failure, or it could be different (usually less).


There are no numerical changes to the die rolls (either bonus or penalty). So how does the GM make the challenge easier or harder?

First, by changing the Costs of success for rolls below 10. If the Cost is a slider then setting it to zero means that a success with a roll below 10 is the same as a full success; alternatively if it’s set to “high” then it makes the chance of a Cost-free success lower, but also pushes a decision onto the player — take the hit now, or wait until the next opportunity to roll in the hope that you get a 10+ next time.

Second, by changing the Consequences. OK, this doesn’t affect the actual probability, but it does affect the perceived difficulty and pushes a decision onto the player. This only happens when the GM informs the player of potential Consequences in advance. It could even be phrased as “if you fail, XXX will happen” to set the stakes.

Third, by forcing Whitehack-style Disadvantage on the roll — so the player rolls 2 dice and keeps the lower result.

And fourth, by requiring more than one roll. You could demand a succession or rolls (for time passing and ticking bombs) or that all the rolls are made at once.

Skill and Expertise

That’s all well and good, but how does my character’s abilities affect this roll if there are no numerical modifiers?

The obvious one is rolling with advantage as used in Whitehack and D&D5e. You get to roll two D20s and keep the result you like.

The less obvious one is mitigating a Consequence or Cost. If you have a hierarchy of Costs, you could move the cost one rung down the ladder. Alternatively you could say the PC’s skill means they can defer one Cost per scene (or two, or more… though I’d stick with just one).

One thing this allows you to do is then ask the player how their PC is mitigating the cost — e.g. if they’re using an ability that lets them ignore this cost, where did this advantage or training come from? The approach should be (again) similar to Whitehack.

What about combat?

Since OSR has a whole subsystem devoted to fighting with AC, HP and BAB I guess you need to decide whether to keep this subsystem, or convert it.

If you convert it then you need to decide things like “does the GM roll dice, or just the players?” and how armour works, e.g. does it offset Cost or Consequence of a bad attack roll? I haven’t worked those out just yet, but I’ll get to them shortly.

Ladder of Costs

Finally, here are some PbtA style Costs aka MC moves:

  • Take damage or trade damage (Cost can be mitigated by armour, hit dice, etc.)
  • Put them on the spot
  • Take their stuff
  • GM advances a clock (or clock die)
  • GM takes a pain token (Don’t Rest Your Head style)

Taking or trading damage can be according to a damage ladder, which is really just a way to differentiate between things that do some damage (e.g. a weapon in the hands of an average person) and more damage (a weapon used by a trained person, a bear, a dragon, etc.).

More generally some costs will be more onerous than others, hence the need for a “ladder” which will also allow the GM to tune the level of difficulty/consequence (q.v.). This is a WIP, so more later.

Fugue: Player-Facing Documents

This is part of a series of documents about the development of the game Deep Season, a game based on the Fugue mechanics developed by James Wallis for the forthcoming game Alas Vegas.

Chapter: Player-Facing Documents

These are techniques that aren’t covered in the core Fugue rules, but nevertheless I think they’re necessary in order to get a “proper” Fugue game with rotating Dealers to work. There are three documents here, and they’re all “player facing” in that they exist on the table in front of the players, and may be expanded by the players during the sessions. They are:

  1. The Setting Brief
  2. Facts and Observations
  3. The Cork Board

The Setting Brief

Alas Vegas has a whole setting chapter including some elements that won’t be immediately known to the characters (since they’ve just emerged from shallow graves in the desert, with amnesia). Nevertheless this chapter is important for all players to read before the game. Why? Mainly it’s because thanks to the shared nature of the game the players need to be on the same page regarding tone, how the environment looks and feels, and the common knowledge shared by the game characters (tourists and locals).

The setting brief is a metafictional document; it relates to the various setting elements that the personas will experience, but it’s written as a direct contrast to player knowledge about the real Las Vegas. If you think about it, you wouldn’t expect the game characters to draw those comparisons — they have amnesia after all, to the extent that they’re unable to perform some tasks we take for granted and we’d expect a typical resident of Vegas to know (e.g. driving a car).

Of course through use of flashbacks some personas might claim real-world knowledge. That’s OK. The players should still absorb the setting brief so they hit the ground running as personas in the world (there are only four sessions, after all).

Facts and Observations

This sheet of paper is a living list of things the personas have witnessed or otherwise agree upon. It’s inspired by the Facts and Reassurances sheet from that other “Hollywood amnesia” game, A Penny For My Thoughts.

At the start of the game the first Dealer will present the partially filled Facts and Observations sheet, and place it in the middle of the table. From then on anyone can add to the sheet, although it’s mainly the Dealer’s responsibility because subsequent Dealers will uncover further facts about the world based on the briefing in their Act, which they will then convey to the players.

Facts and Observations will generally be high level, for example

  • This place looks like Vegas from the 70s
  • There’s something wrong about the street signs, and no-one will sell us a map
  • There are five casinos here called the Star, Swords, Wands, Coins and Cups

Each Act should be written to make it clear to the current Dealer when they must add lines to the Facts and Observations sheet. At any other time they or another player may add a line to the sheet. The end of each written Act should include a run-down of the things that should be on the sheet.

Why go to this trouble? Well, there are two reasons:

  1. Humans have limited working memory — the typical figure is 7 give or take 2 things that they can keep in mind at one time. Asking all the players to have perfect recall over all the facts is a lot, and can lead to inconsistency, some things being forgotten, the wrong assumptions, etc.
  2. Writing the Facts and Observations down is a contract that the Dealer has to abide by. Of course the Dealer may introduce elements that look contradictory, or even cross out Facts and Observations that prove false — but they can’t just do that on a whim. If they write something down, or cross something off, they do it in full view of the other players. This is a method of keeping things fairly consistent between Dealers.

About that second point — yes, Dealers can contradict earlier established Facts, or at least appear to. This appears to violate the “accept, include, don’t contradict” maxim of improv. However, David Lynch’s scripts are full of apparent contradictions, coincidences and unexplained happenings; so I’d take any contradiction as an opportunity to question, rather than shutting the previous Dealer down. If two facts appear to be mutually exclusive, are they? Or is there a set of circumstances which permit both facts to be true?

The Cork Board

The third tool for getting the players on the same page is the Cork Board. It works like this:

  1. When you introduce a new character write their name down on an index card.
  2. Also write down important information — mostly this will be who they are affiliated to and/or who is reporting to them. Since Fugue revolves around the Tarot, this may often be one of the four Suits (as in-game factions) although that bit is optional.
  3. Pin the index card to the cork board.
  4. When the character comes up and new information is learned about them, add it to their index card.

Now, here’s the optional but interesting technique. If you’re the current Dealer, you’re managing the behind-the-scenes game stuff. You know what the NPCs are planning, what actions they intend to take next. You need a way to communicate this to the next Dealer, without giving it away to the other players, right?

So, write it on the back of the index card.

When you hand the Cork Board over to the next Dealer, they should look at all of the characters as written down, and check the back of the cards for instructions. That Dealer is not at all obliged to make anything of those plans; but in the interest of “accept, incorporate” it’s encouraged. It’s nice if the outgoing Dealer can set something up, and the incoming Dealer can feed off those cues.

Of course, the outgoing Dealer is limited by how much space there is on the index card. No problem; just attach a second card to the first with a paperclip and use that space.

It does mean that your handwriting has to be legible, of course.

You can do this for locations, too. I’d encourage writing down major locations on index cards, with distinguishing features and connections to characters (X was seen here in Act Two, etc.). And you can write secret advice on the back of those cards.

If you’re going to use Locations as well, I recommend either a second Cork Board or some way of marking the two different kinds of cards (different colour card stock, etc.).

It might be easier to gather the index cards up at the end into a single stack, with a big bulldog clip or rubber band to hold them together. That may make handover easier. But I recommend cork boards and pins during play as they can lay out the cards so the players can see them easily.

(I bought my cork boards from a well-known national chain of bric-a-brac stores for just a couple of pounds)

Demanding Bad Game Design

This is quality trolling:

So, as far as I can tell, the Old School Revolution is about demanding bad game design. Can anyone give me a counter-example?

Hah. Hah hah. As if the OSR is a single, homogeneous body — the “members” can’t even agree what R stands for. Note that the request for “counter examples” isn’t an invitation to challenge the premise; by inference any such examples are marginal cases.

Bad Design

Forgetting the “demands” of your strawman, what do you mean by “bad design”? When someone looks at a specific example and proclaims “this is a bad design” they can mean one of three things:

  1. Bad foundation theory (someone is designing on a basis — sociological, scientific, factual — that is wrong)
  2. Bad implementation of good theory (the basis is fine but the implementation is a mess)
  3. Bad product (actually the product is on spec, but you just don’t like or want it)

Coming from Chem Eng we have design standards. These form the basis for actual designs of chemical plants including vessel shape, flow rate, heat transfer, pressure relief, etc. so what you build will make product consistently and not blow up and hurt people.

This is a big toolkit that forms the basis of any design — and when people draw on that toolkit to make a specific thing, that’s their implementation of the standards. They can still foul up by implementing them badly, but if they don’t then the finished reactor should make what they set out to make, reliably and safely. But even when you’ve done everything right you can still fall foul of a customer who doesn’t like the thing you’re making perfectly (for reasons).

So anyway, part of the problem with saying “it’s a bad design” is it’s hard to tell whether the person saying it is talking about foundation, implementation, or personal taste. Take this (from my namesake):

You have six standard attributes so poorly defined as to what they’re supposed to represent that the very first change most subsequent fantasy RPGs did was clarify what attributes covered

Maybe the very first example of six attributes was a bad implementation; but if subsequent derivative works immediately clarified the attributes, this problem is functionally solved for all later works, i.e. the ones in use (including Dungeon World).

None of it suggests a bad foundation. Six attributes obeys my personal design standards for working memory, for example; it’s easily sub-grouped to reduce cognitive burden. And there will always be a need to interpret abstract terms — speaking of which:

You have a play culture that encourages simulations thinking and a rules structure that is so abstract there is no simulative value to it whatsoever.

Abstraction is the freedom to interpret and make cognitive leaps that connect the objects to the thing being simulated. Some rules do this interpretation explicitly, some defer the interpretation to the group and their tacit assumptions. In either case, this interpretation is all the effort needed to confer “simulative value”.

The inference is that the OD&D foundation is a poisoned well and nothing good will come of it. This is bias, and unproven.

I reckon the OSR foundation is technically functional — you have clear divisions based on class, attributes, and ancilliary properties (like armour, hit points, etc.). Clear divisions where the players can recognise each moving part without ambiguity makes for a lower overall cognitive burden, i.e. less time negotiating the system, more time roleplaying (see here).

Good Design

As expected the thread has prompted some examples of “good OSR design”. These are mine:

  • Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions does a great job of deconstructing the genre and providing a complete world building and faction management system for the GM
  • The Black Hack for usage dice
  • Beyond the Wall for the vast amount of player-facing material (playbooks, scenario packs, threat packs) and the way it incorporates rumours into the landscape in Further Afield

These are design implementations of the foundation rules framework. They each have moving parts that are designed to be interacted with.

Then there’s the other things the OSR does well, like really well designed books with economical text and high utility, high signal-to-noise, like Scenic Dunnsmouth (compare that to reams of overwritten, fluffy White Wolf supplements, or even CoC adventures).

The problem is that some people don’t value these as design goals. They are the customer who doesn’t like the finished product.

Youth and Experience

Now comes the rant.

No-one under the age of 40 gets to lecture someone whose (sic) been gaming since the mid-70s on not understanding Old School. Us old timers get lots of laughs listening to 30 somethings try to tell us what gaming was like back in the day.

I’ve been getting a fair amount of this lately. Being new parents we’ve been inundated with unsolicited advice, most of which is highly subjective and/or out of date, couched in the bias of a previous generation or two.

Then there’s the EU Referendum — and I won’t deny there are strong left-wing arguments for Britain having never been in the EU (neoliberalism, etc.) — but a lot of the Leavers are the older generation who are voting “for the younger generation” on the basis of decades-old cultural bias, and seem oblivious to the cultural and financial hurt it will cause the youngest generation who voted strongly (and with a pretty high turnout, actually) to Remain. I guess the millenials will have the last laugh when the Tories do away with our bill of Human Rights, and people over 70 will automatically be fed into the municipal biodigester as part of NHS cost-cutting.

And I’ve had my fair share of martial arts masters holding court, while their students buy the next round. When you’re young it’s hard to look at your elders and think “no, sensei, you’re wrong”.

But here’s the unpleasant truth about age and experience. First, expertise does require age and repetition, but skills also decay. This means that if you’re not continually refreshing your skills, be they technical, oral, or critical thinking, you can and will be superseded by people younger than you. And if you wrote off a culture as a waste of time years ago, you’re probably not engaging with it. (see Accelerated Expertise by Hoffman et al.)

Second, once an “expert”, by which I mean someone who has been practicing a thing for 10,000 hours or whatever gets up to speed, there isn’t much difference between practicing experts after that stage.

But very few people are actually experts; most of us are spread over a range of transferrable skills and we don’t achieve true expertise (speed of decision-making in the given field, tacit awareness, deep knowledge) in any one area. And in those examples, there’s not much difference functionally between a 30 year-old and a 60 year-old. The 60 year-old may have worked in a lot more places, but for any one task they may be worse than the 30 year-old thanks to lack of practice and skills decay.

What does increase with age are the heuristics and biases in decision-making. So if you’re part of a culture that continually devalues certain ideas then you will develop biases against them, and heuristics that exclude them. And that will only get worse as you get older.

MAD Threesome

Once the darling of RPG theory, the Threefold is barely tolerated these days. A lot like Ben Elton. Unlike Elton they didn’t sell out, they were just too abstract to begin with — so they ended up needing a lot of additional qualification and just sounded pretentious. The problems with the threefold, and specifically GNS, are/were:

  1. The tenet that you must play one to the exclusion of the others, or your game is incoherent
  2. The idea that the output is “story”, which is a loaded term…
  3. …which then elevates Narrative over the other two styles/modes
  4. Game, Narrative and Simulation don’t have easy real-world examples of products; instead they’re supposedly behaviours leading to certain outcomes…
  5. …which supposes that not only is one outcome more favourable than another, there are correct and incorrect behaviours.


Rather than using abstract terms, let’s take genre examples:

  • Mystery: a game in which the characters seek clues and are rewarded with an overall truth
  • Adventure: a game where the characters overcome obstacles, usually with an element of risk or time pressure, and are rewarded by either gaining power, or succeeding in opposing an enemy
  • Drama: a game where the characters interact verbally or physically in a series of conflicts, that progressively define their relationships with one another

The Markers

Each of the three genres can be classified with four markers:

  • Relationships: whether the relationships are dynamically changing or mostly static; whether they are between PCs, or PC-NPC
  • Landscape: is the environment a fixed backdrop, or does it change as the game progresses
  • Obstacles: why obstacles exist and what we get from overcoming them
  • Effort: where the effort is in preparing to play the game


Relationships Static and assumed benign between PCs; unknown and developing over time between the Party and various NPCs/antagonists. This is the “squad fallacy” that assumes the PCs will work together (which becomes part of the unspoken agreement between players).

Landscape Used to frame a source of clues, therefore usually changes progressively following a predictable, ordered path (e.g. from the Mansion to the Well to the Mill to the old Factory) but sometimes retreading previous locations as the relationship with NPCs develops (q.v.)

Obstacles Exist to serve up clues, and balance the gain of clues with a certain risk or cost.

Effort A great deal of effort up-front to construct a mystery. A coherent back-story, with well-paced clues that aren’t impossible but don’t give the game away too early. This is the basis for Cthulhu product lines (CoC, ToC, etc.) where you’re playing for an experience in play (rather than just another splatbook).


Relationships Like the Mystery, the PC-PC relationships are often static and benign, “squad-like”. Unlike the mystery the PC-NPC relationships are often known from the outset, with NPCs as antagonists, allies or neutral service providers.

Landscape Used to frame encounters; investigated as a sandbox, so progressively explored but in a non-predictable manner.

Obstacles Exist to make the act of exploring dangerous (with location encounters) and provide gains in power/wealth and/or neutralising opposition.

Effort Effort to construct a location-by-location sandbox, with encounters and a back-story. No requirement for pacing of plot/clues, but may need to keep track of events or the progress of antagonists (e.g. in Deep Carbon Observatory, if they arrive at certain locations before or after the characters)


Relationships Main focus is PC-PC and will change dynamically; there may be in-game currency (drama tokens, strings) that regulates this. PC-NPC relationships may be secondary.

Landscape Fixed set of locations that are usually directly connected to, and known to the characters (i.e. not much scope for exploration)

Obstacles Obstacles are usually in the form of tensions between two characters that must be resolved; and resolving them (or failing to) creates further drama and fodder for the next scene. Apocalypse World does this really well but in a very specific way with moves, etc.

Effort Effort is in up-front creation of the structures — including tension, wants, etc. — which will then be fodder for scenes. This effort is further delegated to the play group in the first scene, e.g. following the PCs around to see what they do (PbtA) or talking specifically about what they want from each other (Dramasystem). Of the three this is possibly the least effort for individual games.

Closing Remarks

I have my own reasons for looking at the games in this way but I’d argue that there are two benefits. First, each corner of the threefold relates to an actual genre that players can articulate a preference for and you can pitch in e.g. a convention game.

Second, rather than being exclusive you can mix and match the approaches. In fact I don’t think many games are purely M, A or D. A lot of trad games are Mystery-Adventure with components of both survival/risk and obtaining and following a trail of clues, scene-by-scene exposition with some Drama, etc. And Silent Legions is a really excellent sandbox Mystery game, removing a lot of the effort needed for Chaosium-style modules and replacing with the tag system.

Fugue Hacking

I’m posting this here but I’ve also written it into its own document, which you can download here. I’ve released this content under the CC Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 license, like the Fugue rules.

1.0 Introduction

Alas Vegas is basically a rules system and a campaign that are completely bonded together: the story can’t be played without these rules, the rules won’t make sense outside this story. It’s not a ‘story game’ as the market understands them–when did I ever design something that fitted a pre-existing niche?–and although I’m building the game-story within a flexible framework to allow individual GMs to modify it, to make the game about the characters’ journeys more than the setting’s secrets, I’m afraid its replayability is likely to be low.

(from comments on the Alas Vegas Preview, Pelgrane Press, 2012)

In November 2015 James Wallis published the Fugue rules he developed for Alas Vegas under a Creative Commons license. The ruleset looks great, and I’ve several ideas for content of my own. But on my first reading I found the Fugue rules wanting in a couple of areas:

  1. What do to with the Dealer’s “persona” (PC) when it’s their turn to run an act.
  2. How to hand over between sessions.
  3. How to weave flashbacks into the narrative.
  4. How to hedge on facts as the Dealer, when you don’t have enough objective information to provide the answers.
  5. How to write Content Sets.

My interest is in number 5 but to get there we need to consider the preceding 4 items, which should influence how the content is written.

2.0 Weaving in Flashbacks with Triggers and Anchors

I’m going to refer to Triggers throughout. These are pieces of text written into the act that elicit a response from one or more characters. Because Fugue features amnesiac, emergent characters these cannot be written in advance for a specific persona — which may sound obvious, but consider how many times exactly this happens in scripted traditional RPGs, especially short-term convention games.

The role of a trigger is to provoke a response somehow. Triggers include but aren’t limited to

  • Flashbacks (per the 4th condition for flashbacks in the core rules)
  • Prompted actions for the current Dealer’s persona (in Game Character mode)

Triggers are written into each Act. It’s the current Dealer’s responsibility to make sure the Triggers happen. Some of them may be off-screen (e.g. a trigger is applied to the Dealer’s persona, so they take certain action as a game-character) and some may be conditional (e.g. a flashback is only triggered if the party go to a certain location). A trigger should be

When the persona meets Saffron, trigger a flashback

When the persona walks onto Monument Hill, trigger a flashback

When the persona sees a tourist gunned down and turned into chip, trigger a flashback

The other concept is Anchors. These are also written into each Act, but rather than being something to provoke a response, they’re a potential linkage to emerging narrative information (i.e. generated by the other Flashback mechanisms); they’re a reason for the Flashback’s output. They’re relationships, past events, etc. Unlike triggers, you can’t guarantee that they’ll ever be used, but it may be nice to have them written in as a bit of GM support.

If a persona has a flashback here, maybe they have a relationship with Saffron

If a persona has a flashback, maybe it's related to the stash on Monument Hill


3.0 Parking the Persona (and Eternal Champions)

Shared GMed games are not new. 20 years ago I played in a 4-session, 4-player, 4-GM shared game called Eternal Champions — we played Moorcockian heroes, each a representation of a cosmic force from their own realm, drawn together in a time of great need. That need was a very loosely defined existential threat to the entire multiverse, which would be addressed by the GM du jour’s adventure which took place in their PC’s world.

We used a macguffin for parking the current GM’s PC. Since each world’s Champion was part of a fine power balance in their own realm, they were unable to answer the threat themselves, and needed external agents in the form of the other characters. So the current GM withdrew their character and the other three players romped through the scenery tearing things up as only 500 point GURPS characters can do.

That macguffin may not work so well for a Fugue game owing to the single shared world. But actually James Wallis did write about this in the Dealer section of the Alas Vegas partial preview from September 2014:

When it’s your turn to referee a session, your persona remains a part of the group, though you must play them as a game-character. They cannot have flashbacks during this session, or give flashbacks to other personas. If their signifier comes up, nothing happens. You may want to use them as you would any game-character – as a patsy, stool-pigeon, double-crosser, blackmail, blackmailee or enemy agent, whether willing or coerced.

No spoilers, so I think it’s OK to reproduce here. This isn’t the only passage from the preview’s Dealer section that should have been in the core Fugue rules. Also I like it because it establishes how the personas are “owned” by the game and how attached the players should be to them. Feelings of character ownership are non-trivial, and failing to get on the same page re: character ownership, autonomy and disposability leads to inequity.

Now, this omission may have been an oversight, but there’s another reason. Fugue as published is only half a game, and that seems to be a deliberate decision. The authors of the content sets will turn the Fugue rules into a complete game — so how to park the persona must be a consideration of the content set.

3.1 Content Set—Parking the Persona

  1. When it’s the player’s turn to be Dealer, does their persona continue to be present in the game?
  2. If not, what’s the in-game rationale for their absence?
  3. If they are, is the Dealer obliged to make their persona a turncoat, stooge, or other antagonist? What are the Triggers for this?
  4. If the Dealer uses that persona to bring in other narrative elements, how should that be done?
    • Is there any latitude to bring in an external game character with a connection to that persona? Remember Alas Vegas is a closed world, and other Fugue games may be the same, and the personas are amnesiacs
    • If it is indeed a closed world, then the persona can only connect with the world as defined in the text. Do you need to write provision into each Act for this to happen? Are there any Triggers that apply?

On that last point: if you write in a trigger for the current Dealer’s persona, tie it into an event, location or game character that will appear in that act.

4.0 Handover and Shared World Models

James Wallis had this to say about handover between Dealers (again from the Alas Vegas 2014 partial preview)

To make this work you’re going to have to remember the golden rule of improv work – which is all a lot of storytelling games are, really. That rule is: never reject or contradict. Take whatever is offered you and work it into the story. so if you’ve discovered that what you thought was a tale of hunting in the frozen tundra and you’re started to get attached to your Inuit warrior, and suddenly you discover that it’s all supposed to be going off in a hyperreal version of las Vegas, then the key rule is not to overrule anything that happened in the previous session.

Wallis goes on to the second rule which is (in non-neutral language) to have it out with the previous Dealer for screwing things up in the first place. Well, OK, but there is a better solution: don’t play with people who are going to are so obviously on a different page from you that they will wreck the game for everyone by bringing their act to an unrecoverable end-point (more on that later).

Going back to Eternal Champions and games like them, we needed no special conditions for handover. Trust goes a long, long way. But, the Eternal Champions game was not a single supposedly homogeneous world, but four separate ones. Also, like Moorcock’s books, there was little enforced continuity between the worlds; what we were playing with were four different impressions of the same theme. We weren’t restricted by anything as ambitious as a script, and each GM was free to create within a set of very broad guidelines (the aforementioned undefined existential evil, the role of the Champion, etc.).

4.1 Models

Consider a game like Alas Vegas, where the GM mantle is passed from one player to another, but there’s a collective responsibility to one narrative and one group of characters. There are two ways to view this with the passing of time. One is a truly shared model:

Shared World Model

The circles are the start/end points for each act (and handover); the ovals are the scope of the game world. You can see that the scope starts small but as each new GM pitches in the scope gets bigger. This model assumes the improv rule of “accept and incorporate” and the scope of the previous act is always a subset of the next.

The alternative model is the coincidence model:

Coincidental World Model

The universe in each successive act is a copy of the last. Any continuity is an illusion brought about by the goodwill of the players.

Which of these makes more sense for structuring your Fugue game? Intuitively it’s the first, with a shared imagined space and those all-important rules of improve, especially add, don’t contradict. The second model looks like a chaotic mess by comparison.

Here’s a few reasons why the second is actually superior to the first.

  1. The game world has a strong tacit component, that cannot be articulated in full (i.e. made explicit) by the group. Even if it could, each player’s version of the world is skewed by their own heuristics and biases.
  2. Each player will have a limit to their working memory, such that minor details will be forgotten. Working memory is supplemented by writing things down, but since making things explicit is subject to limits too (q.v.) there will always be some detail that’s lost in transition.
  3. Given the themes (Lynch, Cronenberg, The Prisoner, Fear and Loathing) some ambiguity or contradiction may actually be good. The genre — and more generally horror — thrives on uncertainty.

So, this is my recommendation: don’t think of it as a single shared world. Think of it as four copies of the same world, with the personas transitioning between them unawares. Where there is uncertainty, worship the glitch.

4.2 Content Set—Facts and Reassurances

However, you still want to keep the players on the same page. Here’s a couple of ideas.

Let’s consider that other RPG about amnesia, A Penny For My Thoughts. That game features a very neat orientation mechanism in the Facts and Reassurances sheet. If you look through the alternative playsets you’ll see alternative Facts and Reassurances.

This sheet is your starting point to get the players on the same page regarding the world they’re in. For the Alas Vegas preview it’s the setting chapter (before the eyes-only chapters on each Act).

Write a Facts and Reassurances sheet (call it what you want) at the start. At the end of each written act write a Trigger for the Dealer to add to the Sheet before they pass it on to the next Dealer. This document stays in full view of all the players at all times; it represents shared knowledge.

Separate from the Facts and Reassurances sheet, you may want a Relationship map between game characters and personas. Draw this however you would like — on a big sheet of paper, on a cork-board with index cards, in a C-Map, etc.

The index card option

Not only does it allow you to pin, rearrange and pass around the individual cards, it also lets the incumbent Dealer send secret messages to the new Dealer by writing on the back of certain index cards. What messages? They could be questions like “what will Davey do when Saffron makes her move on his turf?” or they could be facts like “Saffron has a twin sister working in the penthouse of Capital Tower”. Whether you encourage this randomness in your content set is up to you. Bear in mind that any secret messages may be ignored by the new Dealer, especially if they forget to look over each and every index card before it’s their act, so they should be an optional extra.

I would suggest an index card for each game character, location, and maybe faction. These will form an add-on to your Facts and Reassurances. At no point do the index cards get flipped over for everyone to see. If the next Dealer down the line reads the back and does something with their predecessor’s idea, cool. Otherwise, let them rest there.

In the end, your collaborative world model will look like this:

Collaborative Model Model

Each act is its own little bubble, but each is successively larger than the previous one, and there’s overlap — the Venn diagram shows where the Facts and Reassurances are reiterated, expanded and inserted at the start of the next Act.

5.0 Building in Constraints

When authoring content, I need to choose which of these constraints to obey:

5.1 Structural Constraints

  • 3-4 hour sessions
  • limited number of acts
  • Dealer rotation
  • Amnesia
  • deliberately limiting player knowledge
  • use of the tarot deck
  • flashback mechanics

5.2 Thematic constraints

  • Tarot imagery in the game world
  • In media res
  • Start location is sparse (characters are naked in the desert, on the edge of civilisation)
  • Closed world with restricted exploration and isolation
  • A division between “tourists” and “locals”
  • Various factions

The above are based on the perceived constraints in Alas Vegas.

5.3 Content Set—Choosing Your Constraints

Switching these constraints on or off raises some interesting questions. For example:

  1. What if the personas aren’t amnesiacs? They’re fleshed out characters but with a collective gap in their memory (say, over a specific time period)
  2. What if the personas don’t start in media res, but there’s a well established mission briefing? How much of that briefing can they trust?
  3. What if the boundaries of the world are never tested?
  4. What if you don’t limit the number of acts in your Fugue game? Just keep the Dealer role rotating (as one might do in say Malandros)
  5. What if you don’t script out the game, just provide an initial premise? (this would make your game like an Eternal Champion game, for example)
  6. What other constraints can you add?
  7. What can you throw to the party right at the start? A map of the area? A list of names, some of which have been crossed out in red biro?
  8. How can you play with the start location? What if amnesiac characters emerge from a lift in an unnamed office building, soaked in blood? Or 5 meters under water, swimming to the surface? Or in free fall? (I actually ran that last one about 5 years ago)

6.0 Blast Play, Handover and Unrecoverable Situations

Alas Vegas is a ‘blast’—longer than a one-shot game but not a standard open-ended RPG. It contains a set of rules and a single adventure that plays out over four sessions, for a group of 4-6 people. It’s a neat format, and the rules and adventure complement each other perfectly to form a self-contained gaming unit unlike anything you’ve played before.

(from the Kickstarter)

So, one of the major constraints is the 4-act structure with around 3-4 hours per act. That’s not far off a convention slot for a one-shot game.

Also like a con game, each act has to be a short story rather than a novel — not much space for meandering plots or misdirection, at least as far as the GM goes. Some con games are experimental and/or open ended but the majority try to resolve and they do so with defined end conditions, e.g.

  • Mission success
  • Escape with the treasure
  • Achieving personal (on-the-sheet) goals

A con game is fire-and-forget — even games with very specific mission parameters can be left open-ended; they can result in objective “failure” (e.g. TPK); they don’t always satisfy all the players. But, the GM isn’t obliged to tidy up their game for the next GM, and they can just leave things hanging (or more likely wash up informally over a pint at the bar).

This isn’t a luxury you have if you’re handing over the GM mantle to the next player. Things at least have to make objective sense; more importantly the end state as written has to be communicated into an end state that all the players can see, so everyone knows where to pick up from.

As discussed above you can already get a long way with (a) trust, goodwill and a social contract and (b) some form of living shared Same Page document. But it should be noted that there’s no one mechanism or safety net built into Fugue that will deal with an unrecoverable end point. If the previous GM leaves the game in a spot which bears no relation to the next act, the world unrecognisable from the Facts and Reassurances, or with one or more personas dead, what can you do? It’s a bit late for “don’t play with those sorts of people”.

Here are two examples of unrecoverable situations and how a system can obviate them.

6.1 Example—Death

Death in-game makes it difficult for the player to continue to participate, but it’s trivial to make that recoverable through game design:

  • Send in the clones (Paranoia)
  • Mechanical influence of resource tokens after death (Mountain Witch)
  • Haunting the party, appearing in Flashbacks, changing the PC’s sphere of influence, etc.

So, this is an example of I write a hard rule or boundary condition that obviates this situation. Job done.

6.2 Example—Running Out Of Clues

Usually when the players are looking lost the GM will chuck in some stimulus (an event, a NPC with vital information); again that’s fine when you as GM are the sole arbiter of your game, but when you have a responsibility to the next player who will be GM, you need to be careful what you throw in off-the-cuff — which means that either

  • new NPCs or prompts need to be written into the original script, or
  • there’s a mechanism for generating new NPCs so that they can be picked up by the next GM.

The GUMSHOE system addresses the old Call of Cthulhu problem of failed Spot Hidden rolls with readily discoverable clues; but in doing so that game requires a heavily scripted product. It’s another example of your How to Host a Murder dinner party game, dressed up in RPG trade dress.

6.3 Content Set—Contingency

I’m not saying either of these are right, or even necessary — but since Fugue itself doesn’t address this problem, if you think it could be a problem in your content set, you might want to think of special rules or conditions, particularly if you have no control over who plays your game. But if the “accept and incorporate; never contradict” improv maxim is enough for you and your players, you probably won’t encounter this issue to begin with.

7.0 Summary and Remarks

Techniques to consider in play:

  1. Use a Facts and Reassurances sheet, and some kind of relationship map or cork board to keep all the players on the same page. Consider using the index cards to write secret messages to the next Dealer.
  2. Accept that this is one one homogeneous game world of expanding scope; it’s a series of iterative and expanding copies, with similarities built from goodwill and rubber bands.

Techniques to consider when authoring content:

  1. When writing your four-act content set, build in Triggers (to provoke Flashbacks) and Anchors (as potential linkages to Flashbacks).
  2. Decide how the current Dealer’s Persona is parked.
  3. In your written content, remind the play group to review the Facts and Reassurances at the start of the act/session, and to add to it at the end of the act/session.
  4. Look at the constraints of play, both practical and thematic. Which ones will you keep, which will you change, and which new ones will you introduce? How does that change the content set? These are potential levers.
  5. If you really don’t trust the players to take their turn as Dealers and not wreck everything, consider building in safety valves. But “accept, incorporate, don’t contradict” should be enough for most people.

7.1 New Content

This document came about for self-serving reasons: Fugue looks like a great, simple system and I wanted to write my own content. But there’s frustratingly little support in Fugue for writing a game like Alas Vegas; and so I started to second-guess how the other content set authors (Yet Already, Remembering Cosmic Man, Warlock Kings) had gone about writing their content. Without any examples for comparison — and with a moratorium on reading past Alas Vegas’ first act if I don’t want to be spoiled — I realise I’m contemplating my own navel. But there it is.

For my own content I have three ideas in the pipeline, although when I’ll get the time to complete them who knows — I’m writing this with a four-week old slung across my chest as I type on the kitchen table. Moments to cherish, eh?

Deep Season

A game of amnesia in rural England around that special season. I’m trading the David Lynch, Fear and Loathing, Americana feel of Alas Vegas for something closer to home. The Prisoner is still relevant, but there’s a heavy dose of teatime BBC1 young adult drama (think Children of the Stones, Tomorrow People, Russell T. Davies’ Century Falls) and of course Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising.

After The Poison Summer

Inspired by Greg Saunders’ Summerland. The characters emerge from a bunker to a verdant apocalypse.

Scanners Love In Vain

Former addicts emerging from indentured servitude, piecing their shattered memories back together which were destroyed by the drug they have been forced to cultivate.

Economics of Hacking

Dear Smiorgan,
I really like playing a Warrior Mage and I want to play Beyond the Wall, but none of the playbooks grab me. I want to be able to cast all the spells and still have better armour, attacks and HP than a regular mage. What can I do?
Richard “The Hamster” Hammond

From a recent conversation on social media, names have been changed, etc. Basically the player wasn’t satisfied by the way BtW made compromises between abilities for multiclass characters — they didn’t want to give up cantrips or rituals to be able to swing a sword.

So the conversation turned to what they would be prepared to give up or compromise to get the build they wanted. Some ideas:

  • Lose Sense Magic ability
  • Slower spell progression (like a B/X cleric)
  • Higher XP requirements (like a B/X elf)
  • Behaviour restrictions (you only get your extra stuff if you behave in a certain way, e.g. like a paladin)
  • Lose your ability with cantrips, spells and/or rituals (like the other multiclass options in BtW)
  • Fictional constraints (e.g. can only cast spells at night)
  • Mechanical cost for magic (e.g. it does your PC hp damage to cast the spell)
  • Some other cost (e.g. you have to deal with a demon who casts magic for you)
  • Unreliable magic (e.g. roll for all magic like a cantrip)
  • Metagame costs (as a player, you always have to bring the snacks)
  • Nothing — your GM just lets you have extra stuff for free

All of these are meant seriously — yes, if your GM agrees to you having stuff for free with no drawbacks, why not?

But players and designers worry about these things — they want things to appear fair and balanced. Two points:

  1. Balance is a lie; what matters is equity
  2. While equity can be achieved outside the system (see examples above about snacks), but when “game balance” is sought it comes from three places:
    • statements of Nature
    • statements of Competency
    • Procedures

Statements of Nature are the starting points for the character (fictional, background, and in OSR terms the Attributes before you’ve chosen a class). Statements of Competency are about the character class, i.e. the character in the setting context. Actual Procedures are the game game, the bits concerned with doing the core activity (combat, social interaction, etc.) where there’s a risk, decision making, game currency and chance.

You can trade all of these, but crucially when people talk about “builds” they’re thinking about changing the statement of Competency (character class, etc.), not Nature, and crucially not actual Procedures. Sure, changing the Competency might have an effect on the Procedures in play, and that’s where a lot of the angst comes from when hacking characters — whether that’s an unreasonable exploit waiting to happen in one, three or ten sessions’ time.

And if that’s difficult to negotiate between your players, it’s doubly hard to discuss on the internet. Because what are the real game consequences of Richard Hammond trading away their ability to Sense Magic for permission to wear chainmail? That entirely depends on what Sense Magic means for their group and GM — in their setting and campaign the ability to Sense Magic could be a gatekeeping mechanism for certain parts of the plot (say, your ability to Sense Magic allows you and only you to communicate with certain NPCs). Or, it could be worthless, in which case that character gets to wear chainmail “for free”. Who knows? Who cares? Who wins and who loses?

Barter Economics vs. Centralisation

Thinking about Richard Hammond’s example, one problem is the discussion gets framed as an appeal to a central authority, something that doesn’t exist in OSR land. These trades are more like a barter economy: transactions are between individuals, and you can ask the community “is X worth Y in trade?” the actual transaction is between two individuals.

Compare this with monolithic 80s and 90s generic system designs like GURPS (or pseudo-generic, like White Wolf’s systems) where there’s a central authority on how much everything costs. But the problem remains the same — this balancing is done as a compentency statement, but the impact on the overall procedures is still uncertain. You can spend 500 points on your character and have something extremely effective, or spread way too thinly. Plus, your game comes out smelling of GURPS.

Thinking more broadly, consensus of how to play and what is valuable is shaded by heuristics and biases in game design which come from two places:

  • the designer (i.e. top down)
  • the community (i.e. bottom up)

Designer and community will place different values on the moving parts of the game. Most importantly the design dictates how loose those negotiations are and how much latitude the community has for making transactions. Games like Apoclaypse World seem a world apart from GURPS in content but they are still authoritarian designs; as a consequence they change the tone of community discussions away from what is the value of X against Y in trade, and towards how do I correctly implement and interpret X.

That’s not a criticism by the way. But what it does mean is that the negotiations over trading move X for move Y happen in a different place. When hacking your PbtA game the trades happen in the region of Procedure rather than perceived Competency; the value of the changes can only be evaluated by playing.

Designer Diary: Pitching Black Mantle

One of the reasons I started this blog was to keep my hand in writing something, anything. It helps, because for some reason I can have ideas and be really lazy about writing them down. I have bad habits.

Anyway, this is my game. It’s called Black Mantle.

Fluff, Colour, Tone, Setting, Yadda Yadda

This is a game about a dystopian City where Citizens are born into “Work Philes” or vocational tribes. That will be their life unless they can ascend the PRIV ladder and become higher-tier citizens. But while the propaganda is that anyone can achieve a higher tier through hard work, the economic realities work against anyone even trying to make it out of zero level.

The exception is for Mantle pilots who plug themselves into the Mantle exo-suits and venture outside the City, at the behest of one of the City’s Corporations. No-one knows what exists Outside, and pilots contracted to the Corps are forbidden from talking about their missions within The Interior. But if you have the neural aptitude to sync with a Mantle, the Corps will want you. These are the Player Characters. They are young and inexperienced, and the only thing they know about the Outside is rumour.

Mantle pilots are rewarded handsomely with PRIVs. Previous zero-level workers can suddenly find them ascending the citizenship tiers (levels 1 through 10) and mixing with higher level citizens, including the movers and shakers in the Corps and Government. They’ll be instant celebrities. The PRIV system also allows them to take their family with them to the upper tiers; some do, others leave their old Work Phile far behind.

  • What did you see Outside? Why does it Haunt you?
  • What did you take back from Outside? Why do the Corps want it?
  • Where is your family? Do you need them?
  • Where and what is the City?

Crunchy Bits

This is a consciously “heterogeneous” i.e. not unified design. It is also “asymmetric”. The Interior system which represents the characters as Citizens is fairly freeform and designed to cover the relationships between the characters. Not sure about this system; maybe borrowing something from Dramasystem.

The Exterior system is (at the moment) all OSR, with some tweaks (e.g. some of the Death Comes To Wyverley extra rules to change survival, and add scaling mechanics). Exterior missions should function very much like dungeon adventures including exploration, combat, and mission reward. Rewards specifically are experience points but these are an in-game property; do better in your mission and get PRIVs, rise up the ranks, and get access to better gear.

Other OSR-like bits include considering what is “player facing” such as charts and tables; and how to efficiently support the GM in managing factions and their motivations.

There is a feedback mechanism between the Exterior missions and the Interior setting, but I don’t feel confident in talking about that just yet. There’s also a collaborative element to starting the city, something that’s evolved since I thought of the “city accelerator” tool.

There should be a discussion about what happens when the meta-game Wall breaks down, and the Exterior OSR procedural-style games bleeds into the Interior drama-style game.

There will be Mecha and/or Werewolves. There will be Relationships. There may be Dice Clocks. TBD


Mainly influenced by two manga/anime which are surprisingly similar: Attack on Titan, and Knights of Sidonia. Both feature young protagonists with limited knowledge of the space outside the wall. In addition there are internal hierarchies and political struggles within the human community. Oh yeah, and giant robots / three-dimensional movement gear / titans.

Most important feature of these two series is their asymmetry. The protagonists work by a different set of rules inside and outside the “City”; this is particularly apparent in Knights of Sidonia where the interior scenes are all about exploring Sidonia and the relationships between Nagate, Izana and Yahuta, and these characters can be strong inside and weak outside, or vice-versa.

(it’s colour/fluff, but Izana’s non-binary gender also influcences gender in Black Mantle)

Mechanically influenced by Flatland Games’ Beyond the Wall. Various discussions of the transition between the interior (village) and exterior (beyond the wall) are elsewhere in my blog. Also influenced by various Sine Nomine OSR games.

Secondary influences:

  • consciously derivitive of YA dystopian fiction e.g. The Hunger Games and Divergent
  • but also inspired by much older YA (before YA was a thing) such as H.M. Hoover’s Children of Morrow
  • Christopher Priest’s Inverted World
  • China Mieville’s City and the City

The GM, and Secret Knowledge

I have strong views on settings, in that when I buy a game I don’t want to be spoon-fed someone else’s setting or worse, metaplot. One of the strengths of some OSR games is how they provide a framework for creation of the sandbox and the GM’s own setting, so I’m bearing this in mind.

Another issue is the Big Secret, which IIRC was a problem with the Engel RPG. It goes like this: there’s a big mystery to do with the world which the players are ignorant of, and which forms the central piece of interest in the GM’s section, and often the whole motivation for the core activity of the PCs. Once you know that, the central interest is lost. This is also a feature of some of the fiction above (notably the millenial YA genre) so while genre appropriate it limits the lifespan of the game.

This is a non-trivial problem to solve, and at this stage I don’t have a good answer. But something to be very mindful of. Having enjoyment as player limited by having previously GMed is something to avoid.

Other Systems

Other systems I considered:

  • FATE, no way. Sterile, unified, boring. I don’t get on with it
  • PbtA is a much stronger candidate, and the proposal above could almost be a hack of Night Witches (I guess; I don’t own it). However I know how much effort it is to design for that system, and it hasn’t clicked with me yet
  • I love WaRP / Over The Edge. This might not be the game, but it’s always in the back of my mind as an option

Last, I stand by my previous comments on heterogeneous design which have come from ideas on the internal/external game and internal relationships in Beyond the Wall, e.g. here

To be continued

Messy Designs

This post makes a case for a “hodge-podge” (a.k.a. heterogeneous, incoherent) design on the basis that different genres demand different mechanics and crucially

Games which typically spawn the longest-running campaigns embrace the largest variety of genres and subgenres (to keep the game interesting over time).

While I think there’s some tenuous logic here (what’s typical? How broad is the sample set? Who observed this?) it chimes in with something I already had in draft. So, here is my case for why a heterogeneous, incoherent hodgepodge might actually be better than a unified mechanic, both for learning and for play.

One: Chaos

Here Tim Harford talks about mess and creativity


Chaos, mess and sub-optimal conditions makes for creativity. And in related news procrastination makes us more productive according to Professor Adam Grant.

So the argument here is that a heterogeneous system that defies expectations is more challenging and stimulating. That might suggest that your heterogeneous design works better as a learning tool, and provides more variety in the long term. However the design relies on getting better results through uncomfortable or stressful (even adversarial) situations. Whether you can dial that back (so the players don’t revolt and leave) and still make for a varied challenge is something to be tested. Need more data.

Two: Working Memory and Chunking

The other hypothesis is to do with working memory. For Knowledge Management and Cognitive Tasks we like to throw around the Magical Number 7, i.e. the number of objects in working memory being 7 +/- 2. These are the disparate elements in your game design, which together make your holistic view of your complete system.

Well then, you think: obviously your one, unified mechanic represents a less complex system than seven disparate ones. A unified system is still better.

But it’s not that, for a couple of reasons. One, for the average player, it probably makes little difference to them whether they’re looking at seven objects or just one; the cognitive burden is similar.

Two, the emphasis with heterogeneous systems is on elements that look and feel different, and that disparity could actually aid recall, perhaps by a chunking mechanism. And this also leads to your unified mechanic’s weakness: everything looks the same. A single mechanic isn’t just a single mechanic, it’s a starting point with an unbounded number of usage cases. This is arguably more complex than seven disparate objects with clear boundaries.

Consider a game where the only mechanic is a percentile skill list of 200 skills. Simple to grasp, but near impossible for the average player to get an holistic view. This is compounded when

  • every skill looks the same but has wildly different context and even power levels (e.g. Vampire’s skills, attributes and disciplines are rated on the same scale), and
  • when designers split up their list into four or more smaller lists (listen to the Gauntlet podcast moan about Night’s Black Agents here)

Now maybe your heterogeneous design may have more than 9 parts. If they’re all in play at the same time, you will have a problem with cognitive burden. But if you just swap conditions in and out of play (circumstantial mechanics, custom tables, things to interact with on the table) the holistic view of the game can be preserved. My further theory is granting the players this holistic view may have a positive influence on player satisfaction, although I have a strong bias here because that’s what increases my satisfaction. But you can have a system of “core” and “transient” modules that, at any one time make up your 7 +/- 2 pieces that the players call “the game”.


The social media debate around whether unified or disparate mechanics are better for long term isn’t high value; it’s supposition or based on anecdote. Resolving this means you need to be able to measure

  • player satisfaction and engagement
  • how much the GM sticks to, or deviates (hand waves) from their unified system (as a control)
  • the number of disparate elements, i.e. does my theory that 7 +/- 2 disparate elements produce no more cognitive overhead than just one?

and apply this to several groups running both unified and heterogeneous systems.

(when there’s time left over, you can also test the idea that most long-running campaigns need someone for the other players to look down on)

Dice Clocks

This is inspired by three different systems:

This is how combat works in Carcosa:

  1. The hit dice are rolled when the combat starts, on both sides
  2. When damage is dealt, it comes off each die, starting with the highest
  3. If the monsters go down first the combat is won. If a PC’s hit dice go down before that, they’ve been reduced to 0 hp.

In Carcosa the dice shape is randomly determined (so you could be rolling d4 or d12). I prefer Necropraxis’ stabilised hit dice where the dice are d6 all the time.

pool 2

Dice Clocks

So, for a more general application, any time there’s a threat or obstacle, throw down a pool of dice representing that obstacle that the players have to knock down. The players also have their own pool of dice and if those get knocked out, they take the consequences.

Dice Clocks are progress bars. They make sense when

  • you want to track an extended action (making your way through a castle, picking a lock, ingratiating yourself to the locals) or note the change in a global state (alert state of the castle increasing, which will cause problems)
  • there’s something competing with the PCs (e.g. while the PCs are trying to stay hidden, they’re also trying to complete their mission in the shortest possible time)

It may make sense to have only the GM having a clock, or the players only having a clock.


This would work a lot like the clocks in Blades in the Dark, with about as many permutations.


  • When the PCs are infiltrating a castle, they have a collective pool for their stealth. Blow a stealth roll and the clock goes down; when they have no dice left, the castle is on alert.
  • When the party are trying to investigate a set of murders and stop the murderer before they strike again, they are trying to knock down the GM’s pool which represents how well the murderer is hidden. The GM rules that they roll once per night, and if they haven’t cleared the pool in three nights there will be another killing.
  • A PC is under cover at a party, trying to seduce a NPC. Both the GM and the player have a pool of dice, and if the GM’s pool goes down first then the PC succeeds; if the PC’s pool is knocked out, they get booted out of the party.

The stealth and combat examples are fairly narrowly defined. The others are a bit broader, abstract and freeform — e.g. the murder enquiry would traditionally be a constructed investigation with a trail of clues (Cthulhu, etc.) but in this case the players are rolling to get a clue, and the GM is making up the clues as a response to the dice results.

Using the dice like this mean that more than one kind of roll can be used to knock down the clock, if you want to play like that. Both stealth (dexterity) and misdirection (social) rolls could be used to avoid detection in an infiltration or heist. Just be clear on what skill rolls will affect what clocks.

Knocking the dice down

How do dice get knocked down?

  • By rolling a success. In a d20 system, if the PCs are “attacking” the GM’s dice pool, they knock out a number on the dice equal to the margin of their success (so a 17 vs a target of 12 knocks out 5 points on the GM’s dice).
  • By failing. If the PCs are rolling to keep their cover and they fail, their dice pool goes down by the margin of failure (e.g. rolling 8 vs. a target of 12 means they go down by 4).

This system works with both roll-over and roll-under. If it’s roll-under the margins of success have the potential to be big and the margins of failure are limited by the maximum on the dice (20).


Just as in AW and BitD the clocks can be knocked down by more than one kind of action, encouraging teamwork. If the team were working together in a heist, they might overcome the bank’s defences with a combination of subterfuge, stealth, technical know-how and even brute force. All qualifying actions count for knocking down the dice clock. Using the clocks like this injects a bit of narrative woo into the typical d20 style games, if you like that sort of thing.

When the clocks are rolled, the GM should (normally) be clear and up-front about what the GM’s dice mean, what the players’ dice pools — or collective dice pool — mean, and what actions will result in pools being under attack (e.g. for combat the only thing that can knock each side’s dice down are direct attacks).

Some permutations:

  1. Change the die shape.
  2. Only allow one die to be knocked out in one action…
  3. …except for certain types of actions by certain classes (e.g. the Fighter can knock out a second die if they have excess points)
  4. …or on a critical (knocks out two dice, whatever happens)
  5. Set all dice to 1

This system could eliminate separate damage rolls. Instead, use the margin between the target and the actual number rolled as the damage inflicted (so a roll of 15 vs AC 12 is 3 points of damage).

Between combats or stressful situations, hit dice come back. The rate of return depends on the GM, and healing rules. If all the dice come back it will be more cinematic. It makes sense if no dice come back (because it’s luck) or if all the dice come back (because it’s experience).

Hit Dice

HD are a combination of experience, capacity for fatigue, will to survive, and luck. They can go down without causing a problem until you hit zero.

Traditionally they’re just used to track personal (and physical) hurt. With a broader interpretation they’re the character’s safety net in any situation. Why not use Hit Dice in social situations, or infiltration, or magical duels, etc.? Doing so requires a couple of changes:

  1. If HD are a more general resource, how are wounds dealt? How do characters die?
  2. If you have a class-based system, how do you make sure the fighter can take more punishment in a fight than the magic-user — especially if you’re rolling the same shape dice for everyone?


Going beyond death (or dismemberment) — the MC moves from Apocalypse World are good for some ideas about consequences when the dice clock goes down to zero:

  1. Deal Harm. I like the idea of applying damage directly to stats (i.e. the Classic Traveller way). Optionally, require some kind of saving throw to avoid permanent injury or death. This would mean healing spells work a bit differently.
  2. Announce “future badness” or make a mental note of some complication for later use.
  3. Shut off a course of action (e.g. stealthy action, seduction, research)
  4. Take something away (a skill, an item, magic, contacts) either temporarily or permanently.

Character Classes

How many dice for each character class? If this were combat only, you could start fighters with three dice, rogues with two and mages with only one.

Another way to do it: start everyone with a base number of hit dice (say two, increasing with level), but each class has extra dice in certain circumstances:

  • Fighters get 2 extra dice in combat, every time. So even if they’re down on their hit dice, they will start any new combat with two new dice right there. Other classes don’t get that.
  • Similarly Mages get 2 extra dice in psychic or magical combat, every time.
  • Rogues could get 2 extra dice for social situations. Or they could get a floating pool of one-use dice that other classes don’t have.


In no particular order, here are some other permutations of dice clocks.

Pooling Hit Dice for a Global Clock

If teamwork is needed, the party can pool their dice together into one big pool, representing a common action (e.g. stealth). If this happens, make sure everyone who’s in the group rolls dice. Those characters who are bad at stealth actions should be a liability and knock everyone’s clock down.

More than one clock

If you have more than one threat clock, use two different colours of dice, obviously. This would work if the party were, say, fighting a whole bunch of goblins and one powerful sorcerer.

Two Colours

The Dice Horde

For combat the GM can roll one big pool of dice to represent a horde of monsters. Just decide how many attacks or actions that horde can take at one time.

Clock Priority and Interference

When the dice are rolled, highest numbers are knocked down first. So if you roll a 6, 4 and 3, the 6 needs to go down before you tackle the other two.

You could use this rule to create interference. In the above example if the goblins’ dice are higher than the sorcerer’s, that means they’re getting in the way and the party must deal with them first before they can knock the sorcerer down.


This could also be used for the party. Let’s say all the players put down a separate group of dice for each characters; even if the Fighter should be in the front line, if the Magic User has a higher Hit Die, then they might cop an attack first. Offset this by letting the fighter actively sacrifice their dice to protect the MU.

The Sacrifice

Sacrifice one of your own dice to protect someone (say, prevent a consequence landing on another character) or to do something cool (maybe even a narrative control mechanic). Bid your dice like poker chips.

The ability to sacrifice under certain conditions could be class-dependent (fighters to protect, rogues to do stunts, etc.)

Staged Events

If you have stages of effect (say, stages of alert in an infiltration) where at certain points something happens (the guard is doubled, the score is moved to the vault, etc.), represent with two different colours of dice in two pools. When all your orange dice get knocked down, that’s a stage 1 event. When the purple dice are gone too, that’s a stage 2 event.

This process probably doesn’t with the interference option, however — the pools are knocked down sequentially.

Dice in the open

By default, roll the dice on the table and let the players see them and decide how to handle them. Be clear about what those dice represent, e.g. how close the guards are to sounding the alarm, luck running out in a chamber full of traps with pressure pads, etc.

Hidden Dice

If you keep dice back it should be because there’s something the PCs haven’t seen yet that you want to keep track of. Roll that dice clock behind a GM’s screen or something.

Final Remarks

I’m not sure yet if this system has legs, or if it’s another fantasy heartbreaker. Certainly running OSR combat Carcosa style but with the stabilised hit dice has a couple of benefits: one, the dice on the table are a stake and something nice and tactile, and two, book-keeping is easier with low integers.

Appendix: Summaries

Provided for context in case the reader isn’t familiar with the various sources.

Carcosa’s Hit Dice

Carcosa handles Hit Dice like this:

  • at the start of any given combat, randomly determine your dice shape (d4 to d12)
  • then roll that many dice and leave them on the table
  • damage then comes off each die, starting with the highest
  • and at the end of combat lasting harm is counted in the number of dice you’re down.

The benefits of doing it this way are

  1. it frames the combat and puts something physical on the table, like Lace and Steel’s duelling minigame
  2. it reminds the players and GM that something is at stake right now
  3. it keeps lasting wounds between combat in low numbers, which is tidier.

Otherwise it doesn’t change much function-wise.

If you don’t care for the dice randomness this post (Necropraxis) suggests flattening this out to d6s for everyone.

Blades in the Dark’s Clocks

Blades in the Dark expands on Apocalypse World’s clocks for a wider range of situations including:

  • Danger (the clock advances as the situation gets more dangerous, the PCs are at greater risk of detection, etc.)
  • Races (two clocks ticking towards a common objective; use when it matters who gets there first)
  • Mission counters (time sensitive stuff)
  • Tug of War (one side advances the clock, the other winds it back)

And so on. Interesting that John Harper doesn’t use a personal clock to measure character damage, as is Apocalypse World’s way. Note also that Harper uses the clock as a variable count where zero represents the change of state, rather than having something happen at each segment per the advice in Baker’s book.

I love the concept of clocks, although I’ve never been satisfied with their explanation in AW, and while BitD’s kickstart gives a lot of options it doesn’t give enough examples of play. It’s not clear in either game whether the clocks are meant to be in view of the players — that would make sense, right? Otherwise, what’s the point of ramping up that tension if the players don’t feel it, and take steps to address it? But AW is clear that clocks are a prompt for the MC, not the players.

Hollowpoint’s Catch

Hollowpoint is all about the dice — the core of the game is a dice conflict where matched sets of d6 are used to attack each other’s dice pools. One of the mechanics is the Catch, which is a pool of dice that represent a mission objective (steal a thing, get some information, assassinate someone) which can only be knocked out by one skill.