Monday, 24 April 2017

Pale Assassins

This rough game sketch follows some ideas laid down in the latest Fictoplasm podcast about Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.

The General Idea

First, influences, a bit of this and that:

  • Books: Pale Fire (Nabokov), The Land of Laughs (Carroll), Weaveworld (Barker)
  • Film and TV: Twin Peaks, Riverdale, It Follows
  • Comics: Planetary issue 9 (“Planet Fiction”) (Warren Ellis)
  • RPGs: Mage: The Ascension, Over The Edge, Unknown Armies, Changeling: The Lost

In summary, a lot like a contemporary game, a liminal fantasy, magical realism, a setting that looks like the real world but with weirdness.

Second, the pitch.

The characters are exiles from “Ruritania”, a.k.a. The Old Country. This is a place that (mostly) exists outside the game area.

Most of the time the characters have settled in a “Ruritanian colony” in The New Country. This colony isn’t really a real place, but it’s close enough to all the real places in the New Country that most non-Ruritanians, or “normal people” could not tell the difference. It fits right in with their world, they can easily travel to it, etc.

What do the PCs do in this place? Well, any kind of modern drama/investigative type of game. The world looks like our world, and the people inside it behave accordingly, and most of the time you follow the characters around and see how their lives link up.

But at some point, Ruritania intrudes on the real world. Ruritania is the exotic, the weird, the magical. It’s also subjective; Ruritania means different things to different characters. And it’s possible to hold a personal view of Ruritania and experience someone else’s version. Ruritania is a single place but viewed from many different perspectives.

The default setup is that assassins from Ruritania are stalking the characters. The game should play out episodically like a drama, soap opera, police procedural, etc. with a weekly (well, short) story arc. But the Ruritanian arc is long-term. As things get stranger, the assassins get closer to where the PCs are; and when they are close enough, they strike.

System Approach

The goal is to run a game like Twin Peaks with “real” people and their personal interests and drama. Most of the time things are perfectly mundane but at points the strangeness intrudes.

Dramasystem should work very well for setting up the web of relationships. Where Dramasystem fails for procedural bits, consider the procedural approach in Malandros.

Also consider the WaRP system, which works nicely for very light characters. WaRP is very neat looking with the Central Trait, Side Traits and Negative Trait.

Consider the involvement of NPCs in Dramatic and Procedural scenes. A lot of Dramasystem supposedly focuses inward; but a game like this needs external characters to come from outside and connect with the interior characters.

Use a sort of location tagging system. Rate this numerically:

  • 0 for “real world”
  • 1 for “almost real world”; the default state for a Ruritanian colony
  • 2-3 for “intrusion”, that is any strangeness, alternative reality
  • 5 is full-on Ruritania; the magical or weird reality that is stalking the characters.

Locations in the game world can have ratings that go up and down. These ratings represent difficulties for passing into certain areas. See the Boundaries bit, next.

During the game, each character will have a clock which goes up or down. As their rating increases they become more sensitive, more connected with the secret world (criminal underworld, psychic world, dream world, etc.). If this is handled using an Apocalypse World style of “hard moves” then above a certain threshold on the clock certain options are opened to the GM to take hard moves on behalf of the Ruritanian assassins, representing their progress towards the characters.

Additionally when the characters are “in Ruritania” (i.e. in the psychic landscape) they may have restricted actions depending on what permission they have to be there — this fits with e.g. a dream world where certain moves simply aren’t available owing to dream logic.

What is Ruritania?

“Ruritania” represents somewhere far away, magical, normally separate from reality; a higher world, a dream world, an idealised state, a place yearned for. It’s the Black and White Lodges in Twin Peaks, the higher universe of Yesod in the Book of the New Sun, the dream worlds of Dreamscape or Nightmare on Elm St, and so on.

Ruritania in the game is an unattainable state — and it’s normally a place the characters are fleeing from, and from whence they are pursued with lethal intent.

But there are Ruritanian colonies for the exiles; decide whether these are created consciously or happen spontaneously. Maybe they are necessary for survival; the Ruritanians can sustain themselves for a short while in the real world as vampires by feeding off individual dreamers, but for long term health they need to be in a place of stability. Maybe Ruritanian exiles gathering together in one place is a risky strategy since it attracts attention, but they’re forced to get together to survive.

What happens when normal people who are touched by Ruritanian unreality leave? Are they haunted? Are they infected? Is Ruritania a transmissible condition?

Drawing Boundaries

  1. Use a location tagging system to map out the play area
  2. Partition the areas in the map with clear boundaries, and rank these areas according to the previous scale: 0 for real world, 1 for not-quite-there, 2 for magical realism, etc.
  3. Consider that some of these areas can be reached normally, but the magical or secret or mysterious part can only be accessed with certain permissions. Draw these as circles with cross the main boundary.

See the example for Twin Peaks:

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks as an example:

  • “Ruritania” is the Black Lodge
  • The Assassin is Windom Earle
  • Twin Peaks is a colony for Ruritanian exiles, some of whom are magically attuned e.g. Laura Palmer, Sarah Palmer, the Log Lady, Agent Cooper, Garland Briggs, Hawk
  • The Red Room, Agent Cooper’s dictaphone messages to Diane, Tibet, the Log Lady’s log, the owls in the forest, visions by various characters (e.g. the one Garland Briggs relates to Bobby) and possibly even the FBI represent higher states of consciousness

The Map

Several locations. Rating indicates how far they are removed from reality:

The Game

If you were playing Twin Peaks most characters would be drawn together by Laura Palmer’s murder. Agent Cooper travels in from outside but the other characters are already in the location.

The law enforcement characters and indeed everyone affected by Laura Palmer’s death will be interested in getting answers. This would be the arc plot; over the course of the game the Assassin will draw closer and the Black Lodge exert more of an influence.

But there should be episodic drama too, and that’s what the characters should be doing week on week. Dramasystem offers a nice structure to let players frame scenes so they each get spotlight. Consider the balance of incentives in pursuing individual dramatic poles vs. the arc plot.

Ruritania, Magic and Unreality

Agent Cooper’s actions are restricted in the Red Room, and early on he’s only allowed to be a spectator and only to receive cryptic information. He only accesses the room in dreams. All of these point to the level of permission he has to act freely in the Red Room (and the Black Lodge), and (in game terms) the moves he can make in that environment. Furthermore the advent of his dreams is a result of ramping up of weirdness and the psychic world penetrating the real world when he’s in Twin Peaks.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

RPG First Look: Black Hack, Malandros and Blades in the Dark

I backed the Kickstarters for the three games below. In no particular order:

The Black Hack


The thing I admire most about OSR games is how they’ve taken the moving parts and tuned them for a particular kind of experience. The Black Hack is a stripped-back second-gen OSR title, extremely short in presentation and focused on the dungeon combat experience. Whereas Whitehack applies nuance and narrative creativity to the D&D class formula, The Black Hack goes in the opposite direction and focuses on class activities in the dungeon context. The text’s sole concern is on fighting monsters, healing and resting, and carrying around stuff. There are magic spell lists in the back but no actual spells, because why reprint them when they’re available in the SRD?

Nevertheless there are innovations here:

  • simplified rolls against attributes (a de facto standard)
  • roll with advantage or disadvantage is taken straight from D&D 5e
  • armour rules are very elegant both for function and handling people wearing the wrong armour; you have to rest to recover armour function
  • weapons are simplified and damage is class-based
  • usage dice for consumable items
  • simplified monsters
  • a great character sheet:


This feels like the kind of game you’d want for a one-shot tabletop version of Gauntlet. There’s no world, or discussion of the characters’ lives outside the dungeon, and that suits me fine; but clearly this game is speaking to the kind of player who’s already absorbed the tropes (either first time around, or as an OSR enthusiast). That’s my only reservation: this isn’t a complete game so much as a layer or filter for another game, and it relies on familiarity with other properties — and while you can find those for free, you need to know where to look.

I should mention Into the Odd as the closest “competitor” for “0-60 dungeoneering”. Both games make me think Dungeon Crash as opposed to Dungeon Crawl. ItO has the edge with the flavour of Bastion, while BH has the advantage of familiar assets. For flavour I might pick the former, but I’d love to plug BH into some LotFP modules.



I backed Malandros on impulse and G+ recommendation. It calls itself a Dramasystem game but deviates from Hillfolk in the procedural system.

The Book

Malandrosis absolutely gorgeous, with art throughout that immerses the reader in the setting (late 19c Rio de Janeiro). Thanks to the format Malandros is also way easier to read on my iPad mini than Hillfolk.


System-wise it feels like Dramasystem in the split between procedural and dramatic scenes, scene calling, emotional concessions, etc. It’s simplified in that there’s only one kind of token in Malandros (the Drama Tokens still move around according to whether emotional concessions are granted).

But there’s a heavy dose of Powered by the Apocalypse in there both for Procedural “signature moves” and “progress tracks” (a.k.a. clocks). I need to play this to see how it works but on paper it’s a vast improvement over the original, and potentially a case for the whole being much greater than the sum of parts.


I have a couple of gripes. The first is about how the GM role can be passed around. Brilliant, I think — a feature I’m eagerly awaiting in Alas Vegas — but very little mention of this in the game aside from flavour text in the introduction and how to handle the GM’s drama tokens in that section.

This leads to my second gripe: this isn’t a game for newcomers. While that’s true of a lot of games in that generally you have to have played a RPG before, in this one it helps to understand both Dramasystem and PbtA. The text order doesn’t help — Signature Moves are mentioned in Character Creation, written about in the following chapter, but Procedural Scenes are only explained 30 pages after that. This isn’t a problem if you’re either looking to make the connection between character, setting and mechanics, or otherwise have the discipline to read the game cover to cover (and Malandros has a sane word count and little padding). But it is a fundamental problem to ask players to make decisions about their character which have mechanical weight, without knowing what those mechanisms are.

My third and final gripe is that in odd places the text indentation isn’t consistent (e.g. in People You Meet the indents for Abilities/Signature Moves). But that’s easy to ignore.

Alternative Settings

Just as Hillfolk has Series Pitches Malandros has its own alternative settings. The first of these, Aluminium Wars by Mark Galeotti follows a similar format to the core book — there’s setting, character types, then a discussion of signature moves, then finally some location-based fluff.

This is possibly the most interesting because it shows off the full potential of the system — by breaking out new Signature Moves it’s basically doing the AW hack thing but in a much more consistent framework, and well supported by the overarching system and micro-setting. At first glance Aluminium Wars offers a great deal more structure and support than Hillfolk’s series pitches.

Bottom Line

Malandros does for Hillfolk what Urban Shadows does for Apocalypse World (and what second-gen OSR games like the Black Hack do for BECMI D&D). It’s a second generation spin on a foundation text, clarifying and retooling innovative system into something more accessible and functional, but also a conscious deviation. Malandros is something special, and if you’re a tablet reader the PDF is a bargain.

For hardcopies I don’t know what’s happening yet — during the Kickstarter the POD provider was switched from DTRPG to a US-only service provider (slightly annoying since pledges were in sterling) and although it seems shipping charges aren’t much worse, I guess it will complicate returns if there’s a problem with your delivery.

Blades in the Dark


This one was kickstarted around a year ago, and just won the Golden Geek Game of the Year award. I’ve played with version 0.4b of the Quickstart rules with a range of different players. I think it’s now locked in at version 0.6, so we’re waiting for physical products as well as the many stretch goals.


This is a post-PbtA design with associated trappings — notably playbooks and advancement. Other comments:

  • it’s slightly more traditional than PbtA with three groups of skills (insight, prowess and resolve) and a single action roll
  • your band of thieves has its own playbook
  • rules for group actions
  • stress plays a factor; aquire stress during the mission, burn it off by indulging vices in downtime
  • take territory from other higher tier gangs in Duskwall
  • avoid planning out the mission; instead, dive in and make use of flashback mechanics to justify on-the-fly mission conditions (e.g. “I brought the Head of Vecna, just in case”). I suspect this is close to the approach in the Leverage RPG, just as it’s implied in Hollowpoint

Because play is funneled into missions and downtime it’s very easy to grasp the flow of the drama during and between missions. The players I ran it with came from more of a trad background than indie, and it took some encouragement to get them to stop planning the mission up front and just go for it and use flashbacks. I found a similar problem when running Hollowpoint for a more traditional bunch of players. But unlike Hollowpoint the mission structure is less abstract and the support materials are there to guide newcomers into the BitD way.

The discussion on Clocks is more in-depth than any I’ve seen in Apocalypse World or hacks, and inspired thinking into Dice Clocks. I’d say it’s essential reading for anyone interested in ramping tension up in their RPG (which should be every GM, right?).


This is the same setting as John Harper’s Ghost Lines. In the QS it’s implied rather than absolute, and while there’s a lot of evocative characters and places there are also a lot of gaps. Will this get ironed out in the final product? I don’t know; there’s a trend in indie games to assume both tacit knowledge of how to play “the indie way” and also how to parse the text and fill in the blanks.

The problems happen when player-facing documents present some setting element which has no counterpart in the GM materials, putting the GM on the defensive. So, when in Blades a certain character or setting element gets mentioned, it’s hard to tell whether this is

  • a gap that the GM needs to fill, or
  • a load-bearing element that the GM should already be aware of

Examples I have in mind include the nature of the undead, demons and devils in the setting, and specifically how these mesh with the supernatural powers of the Whisper and the Leech. To resolve this the GM has not only to have a broad overview of the setting and the parts of the book (Unquiet Dead and Strange Forces, pp. 60-61) but also look carefully into the detail of the playbooks themselves. With enough time and careful thought these issues can be resolved; but with that much cognitive overhead, the Blades quick start is no longer quick.


It’s a testament to Blades how quickly my players (with a very broad range of experience, both in style and years of play) all just got it after a few rounds. I recommend reading in any case for the ideas on Clocks, the examples of how to build great player-facing game aids, and the interplay between mission and downtime.

BitD cites Thief as an influence, so it was always going to be an easy sell to me. But also interestingly both Blades and Malandros claim The Wire in their touchstones. And since the latter draws heavily on PbtA, the logical next step may be a Blades/Malandros/Dramasystem hybrid, a heterogeneous design which deliberately weaves in dramatic scenes and emotional concessions between missions as part of downtime, with mechanical feedback.