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.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

RPG First Look: Fugue

James Wallis’ Alas Vegas kickstarter was fantastically successful with a backing of 8 times its initial goal. It was also fantastically optimistic with delivery dates with an estimate of June 2013 for hard copies and December 2013 for the Alas Vegas novel. Some people are reasonably irked about the delays, and some have found creative ways to express frustration.

We are receiving some content, slowly. September 2014 got us a partial preview, and as of November 2015 the Fugue rules are “locked” and have been released under the Creative Commons license, so I’m going to look at those.

Alas Vegas


Ocean’s Eleven directed by David Lynch. Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas by way of Dante’s Inferno. The Hangover meets The Prisoner. A new style of RPG by James Wallis, named by Robin D. Laws as ‘the godfather of indie-game design’, with art from this year’s winner of the World Fantasy Award, John Coulthart.

In the backer’s preview (Septemer 2014) James Wallis reasonably asks bloggers, reviewers and the like to hold fire for a couple of years on any of Alas Vegas’ secrets, and as I can’t stand spoilers I’ll do my best not to spoil anything.

Here’s the problem. I’d like to talk about the Fugue system, but the examples I’d reach for are off-limits — both for the reader, and for me, the backer. I’m allowed to read the setting and the first act (the owner of the book gets to be the first Dealer), but not much more than that.

So, this is a review and commentary on the Fugue system in general, but a lot of it will be around what my expectations of the system are, which is something I won’t be able to realise until the release. Alas Vegas and Fugue in general assumes a relationship between GM and game author that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. I’ll talk about that in a bit.

Content Sets

There are three operating constraints on Fugue games:

  1. Your characters have no memory of who they are, how they got where they are, or any skills beyond the most basic (speak language, eat, breathe) at time in.
  2. Play happens over a short, defined span of sessions (“like a HBO miniseries”), typically four.
  3. The GM (“Dealer”) role rotates around the group.

There are some implied thematic constraints too, such as the use of the Tarot in setting elements — since there’s an Alas Vegas set of Major Arcana by John Coulthart, this isn’t much of a spoiler.

There are three “Content Sets” in addition to Alas Vegas (all stretch goal offerings from the Kickstarter). I’m going to assume these sets all obey the same constraints for now.

Now, here’s the problem. The Fugue rules tell us how to negotiate some of the operating constraints, but not all. I assume those gaps have been deferred to the Content Sets, but since (a) we only have half of a draft of Alas Vegas and none of the others and (b) I wouldn’t be able to read them anyway without spoiling it for myself, I can’t say for certain. Anyway…

The Fugue Rules

I went through the Fugue document and made this cognitive map:


(pdf version here) Here is what you’ll find in the Fugue rules:

  1. What you need to play (pens, paper, a tarot deck, etc.)
  2. How and when to do flashbacks (lead by the Dealer, the player of the Persona, and other players; or triggered by the game content). The mechanism for exploring the first operational constraint is almost all there, with one key exception which I’ll discuss later.
  3. The principles of play, such as not contradicting players with flashbacks and One More Thing; and how much of the Content Set the players (who are Dealers) are allowed to read.
  4. How to do all kinds of contested actions, a Blackjack mini-game, and so on, including narrating the outcome based on the Tarot draw.

Now, here’s what you don’t find in the Fugue document:

  1. There’s nothing about weaving flashbacks and abilities into the narrative.
  2. What do to with the Dealer’s “persona” (PC) when it’s their turn to run an act.
  3. How to hedge on facts as the Dealer, when you don’t have enough objective information to provide the answers.
  4. How to hand over between sessions.
  5. How to write Content Sets.

While the player-led narrative control sounds like the new indie school, all of this freedom is entirely around the flashback mechanism and turning the Tarot strings into a narrative. It’s totally freeform, but it’s not dissimilar to other minimalist designs from the 90s like Over the Edge and Everway.

When it comes to Dealer behaviour, other than being prompted for flashbacks when a Significator comes up it’s very traditional, authoritarian GM stuff. The first act I read is not completely railroaded to hell, but it’s not far off. It’s been structured with scene-by-scene set pieces, drip feeding the plot to the players as you go on.

Now, thinking about the constraints above — 4 sessions, 3 hours each, and rotating Dealer with deliberate obfuscation of objective facts in the early acts — I am not sure if it could be done another way. But this raises some interesting questions about the relationship between game author and GM. The author of any Content Set is going to be unable to playtest their own game in the way it’s supposed to be presented to the players according to the Fugue rules.

This is an adventure-as-novel style, heavily plotted, a 90s throwback. There are other clues in the document — the way the Dealer is advised to make the Personas’ lives a misery, but stop short of actually killing them; the way the Dealer is advised to put off the players’ difficult questions, to restrict their movements, because where they’re supposed to be is defined by the act they’re playing in. Honestly? It reminds me of Vampire. Not a metaplotted to hell Vampire, but the intensely personal, introspective, first-edition Vampire. The version I actually like.

Closing Remarks

Thanks to this design, Alas Vegas could never have taken advantage of crowd-sourced playtesting. This is because the Fugue rules are only half of the required mechanism in any Fugue game; the other half is the Content Set.

I expect the Content Set to plug these gaps:

  • weave the Personas back into the narrative. I guess the logical place this will happen is where there are Flashback triggers written into each Act. I don’t see any dynamic, player-led linkage.
  • handover from Dealer to Dealer between sessions. The game may well assume this “just happens” because “the GM knows how to do this kind of thing”. But actually I think this is non-trivial; what if the Dealer played the cards close to their chest and didn’t reveal everything in the previous session? What if the party refused to go where the Dealer was supposed to send them? What if a later Dealer forgot some vital plot from the previous session? Consensus is needed.

Time will tell if this is successful; but these are the criteria I will be using to judge all four content sets when we finally see them. But considering a Content Set needs to plug these gaps and provide a snappy, structured four-act game, I’m not surprised that the initial delivery dates proved ambitious.

I’d compare Fugue to Hillfolk (with its Series Pitches) or WaRP or possibly GUMSHOE. Ostensibly freeform, but from a school of heavy up-front plotting. Like I said, a 90s throwback. Fugue is the antithesis of modern emergent design; it isn’t is Fiasco or Monsterhearts or (ironically) Penny For My Thoughts. The controls on the Dealer authority are baked into the Content Set but instead of mechanistic controls (e.g. the way PbtA limits MC moves) the controls are entirely fictional, deliberately limiting context.

I’m still very optimistic about the final product. Partly because I’ve done this kind of game in the past — when four of us played four Eternal Champions back in the 90s, where we muddled through four sessions, rotating the GM role. Almost entirely free-form, with no controls on how far each GM could go aside from trust and a shared commitment.

As for the Fugue system itself, I think there would be no problem in running a game with a very traditional structure, avoiding the whole rotating Dealers thing. The flashback mechanics and the action rules still work, compartmentalised from the Content Set. I’m sorry I didn’t do that a year ago when we had the first document.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

RPG First Look: Whitehack

I’ve said before that the OSR is like Linux:

OSR games are like Linux distributions: they reflect the operability ideals of the designers, they’re essentially a diffuse package of commands that the distribution maintainer curates and forces to operate together

These little differences between distros (package managers, system tools, desktop environment) form the basis of preference for Linux enthusiasts, but… they’re completely irrelevent to outsiders who make computing decisions on a completely different set of criteria (ideology, need for apps, shiny hardware).

And the OSR is like that. Outsiders can’t grok the difference between the retroclones, even if those differences are fairly significant. Their decision to look at OSR products comes from a different set of decision-making criteria (ideology, community they play with, style, genre, etc.).

In Decision Behaviour, Analysis and Support (excerpt here) Prof. Simon French discusses the “Strategy Pyramid”:


(also, another strategy pyramid — for another time)

The decision for “which OSR” or “which Linux” is Operational/Instinctive — it comes down to a set of low-level activities (which dice, ascending/descending AC, which commands). The decision to use or not use Linux in favour of Windows, or an OSR game in favour of, say, GURPS, is a strategic one with completely different criteria. For the RPG choice you’ll be thinking

  • What do my friends play/like?
  • What products are available in the shops?
  • What settings appeal to me?
  • What community do I identify with?

And so on. Yes, some of these have nothing to do with system — but they’re fair, high-level strategic decisions on which game to invest time in.

By now you’re thinking: what the hell has this got to do with Whitehack?


Christian Mehrstam’s Whitehack speaks the language of OSR — “zero edition roots”, streamlined rules, implied conversions from other OSR sources. Those markers help the OSR types identify this game as part of that family of games, and therefore something to be curious about. If that’s you, check out Sophia Brandt’s 7-part study where you can get the information you need to decide how Whitehack differs from your favourite OSR beast.

For the wider RPG audience for whom Whitehack is “just another D&D game” there’s not much reason to seek out those differences, and that’s a shame. So here’s where I break it down. Because this isn’t only an OSR game, it’s a conduit between the OSR and 90’s minimalist designs which also understands the indie drive towards emergent setting.

Founding Principles

In play Whitehack appears to be built on two very important principles:

  1. You can negotiate for advantage at any time.
  2. When you negotiate for advantage, you explain where the fictional source of that advantage comes from.

The first principle is dear to my heart and core to playing light freeform-style games such as Everway and WaRP/Over the Edge. But it’s the second that drives the emergent setting, growing the world over time. That same principle lies at the heart of indie darlings Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel.

Genre Aware

The genius in Whitehack is not just in its re-treading of the OSR mechanisms, though these are certainly innovative and sleek — it’s in the game’s awareness of genre and setting as they pertain to “adventure”. From the beginning Referees’s section, p.24:

Nobody ever comes “clean” to a game or a genre.

Then from “Hacking Your Notion of Normal” (p.25)

The expression “normal fantasy” may sound contradictory, but it isn’t… if you want to hack your group’s notion of what is normal, concentrate on a select few important aspects of the setting and leave the rest

and from “Switching or Mixing Genres” (p.25)

Genres are formalised answers to historical social needs, not just containers for stereotypes, tropes and typical trappings… Genres run much deeper. For example, science fiction answers the need to shed new light on common beliefs and conceptions.

From the outset Whitehack makes the correct assumption that the reader has their own biases and experience with the genre; it doesn’t work against that, rather provides a framework for emergent setting.

Fluid Framework

I’ll mention one aspect of the mechanics, which is the interaction of the Classes and Groups. Much like Numenera’s characters which are typically

adjective noun who verbs

Whitehack’s character classes are not vocational but only imply a core activity (Deft, Strong and Wise). The book encourages the creation of e.g. Deft Magicians and Wise Warriors with different interpretations on their vocation (a Wise Warrior is a strategist, for example).

Combining this with the different Group options — everyone gets two groups, which can be vocational, affiliation or even species — the result is almost the antithesis of D&D’s rigidly imposed class structure. Instead the classes are a starting point and a means to diverge from the traditional classes, while retaining the usefulness of D&D’s experience reward system.

The Booklet

Whitehack has a clear message to deliver, and is uncompromising as it is clear. It’s not available as an electronic version — it’s POD only, and the hardcover editions don’t ship outside North America. It’s also completely lacking any artwork — the cover is the character sheet, and the interior is 64 pages long with a few tables and diagrams but otherwise just text. This is a very interesting design statement about both the neutrality of the content (your genre, your emergent setting) and the way the content is to be consumed.

Closing Remarks

If you have a reason for buying something from Lulu and you’re even remotely interested, I would recommend Whitehack. In many ways it’s a deconstruction and reconfiguration of OSR mechanisms that empower both the GM and the players in owning their setting and exploring it in emergent fashion. But even better because it has the trappings of OSR it’s “compatible” with a broad range of sources, and has the potential to plug into other games. Mixing and matching Beyond the Wall/Further Afield (Threat Packs, Playbooks, Scenario packs) with Whitehack seems a distinct possibility with a bit of care.

I get a similar vibe that I got with Sorcerer and Sword — and while the latter is more genre-prescriptive, the same principles of ownership of one’s own world, and embracing the emergent nature of that world hold true. At the same time this feels as much like Everway and Over the Edge as it does D&D; and it’s a true “hybrid OSR” approach that marries a player-led narrative with traditional GM oversight.

I am truly excited.