#forged in the dark

hi. i'm tired; this one's off the cuff. for a while now i've been working on an expansion to Songs for the Dusk called Daybreak, which is the high-octane expac that leans into the more combat-oriented sci-fi that inspired the game. to that end i have been thinking a lot about how to integrate more video game-esque mechanics into FITD-style games.

buffs and debuffs: the timing problem

this is, all told, a surprisingly tough challenge! one of the main things i've been struggling with (and this applies to narrative games more broadly) is the question of dealing with time. in a video game you have a computer clock to manage timings, but even for something like dnd, combat is a weird separate subsystem that functions by its own timing rules which can anchor things like buffs, debuffs, damage-over-time effects, and more. narrative games, generally speaking, don't have that; forged in the dark games explicitly call out that rolls can expand and contract in scope specifically according to what the table thinks is interesting and nothing else. you can roll COMPEL to see how a single sentence in a deeply emotional conversation lands, or you can do the same to see how a series of interviews lasting days or weeks go. how do you time buffs and debuffs when this is the case?

i haven't found a single answer, honestly, but here's some examples i've come up with that i can talk about.

(note for daybreakheads: ability names and functions may not be final, and will probably be slightly edited anyway either for clarity or because i like keeping secrets.)

example abilities

Call the Haunted: You can spend 2 stress to conjure a shadowy copy of an item from an adversary's past. Anybody using the item has +1 impact against the adversary. You can only maintain one copy at a time, and if you take harm, you lose focus and the copy dissipates into smoke.

this one's kind of weird because it's tied to equipment, but i think it still serves as a decent example of the technique i've largely settled on: tying timing to mechanical triggers. in this case it's harm, obviously, but you can develop similar approaches both through the use of chance-based triggers:

This effect fades if you overload stress or [apply it to] a new target.

or by triggers under the player's control:

You cannot push yourself or spend harmony while maintaining [this effect].

triggers also don't have to be active; here's another example:

Feathers of a Fading Time: When you have a light load, you can generate a pair of flight-capable wings. Your flight speed is about the same as your ground speed.

this sort of passive, state-based trigger is also a solid choice. load isn't always the best lever for these types of abilities (the playbook this ability is from happens to be able to change load mid-mission, but of course not every playbook will), but i think the principle works.

potential pitfalls

the main thing with regards to these triggers is that you have to be careful about locking off resources because having resources available is one of the key factors that encourages a player to act. the example i cited above, about players not being able to push themselves while holding on an effect, is risky as-is, and i've already reworked an ability which relied on failed rolls to deactivate the effect. after all, if failing a roll could stop your cool debuff, then the pressure's on not to risk failing the roll in the first place.

or, for another example, consider the following ability, which i made up off the dome while writing this post:

While you still have your melody(/special armor/etc.), take +1d to [one action]. Once you've spent it, take +1d to [a different action].

it's a fun idea, and the different bonuses allows for some level of control over the above problem -- there's incentive both to keep and to spend the melody. but, of course, the skills have to be chosen well, because if one action is flat-out more useful than another, then this ability falls flat. +1d is probably far too strong for an ability like this, honestly, but the principle applies regardless of what the benefits are: if they're not balanced, the ability doesn't work. i'm actually curious if people have takes on a design like this; how would you like to play with it?

damage and defense

video games focus very heavily on combat; i try to make games that don't treat combat in a hugely different way than other parts of the game. this can make translating certain other aspects of games to tabletop systems difficult.

damage, or at the very least direct damage, is one of the easier ones to translate: increased effect in fitd. i struggled with the idea of elemental damage or elemental resistances for a bit, but TRPGs have a human interpreter, so you can just integrate that stuff directly into the ability text:

Your magic is associated with the element of water. Take +1 effect when wielding any of your magic against salamanders.

this one's a little vague because water's "elemental" benefits are obvious, but you can work it out for more esoteric systems too:

Your magic is cursed. Take +1 effect when wielding any of your magic against industrial systems or magic developed in urban environments.

apply similar effects to resistances (+1d, -1 stress to resist, etc.) if you're looking to build something defensive instead. it took me a minute to remember these because i'm used to these sort of contextual benefits arising from fictional circumstances rather than something innate to the ability or its wielder (when you face a small gang in melee, when you're working alongside a teammate, when you're using a signature piece of equipment, etc.), but they're essentially the same, mechanically speaking.

damage over time and debuffs have both been tougher to figure out. the way i've solved buffs and offensive debuffs before has been by tying them to player actions, so they can fade based on those same actions or states. defensive debuffs (aka those which reduce an enemy's effectiveness at acting on you) and damage over time effects both struggle with the same problem, which is present in a lot of indie games: the asymmetry between player and NPC rules. forged in the dark games don't have NPC attacks or NPC stats; they're driven by consequences, which sometimes are a direct result of acting on an NPC and sometimes not. this slippage is useful, especially to explain dice randomness and bad outcomes which aren't explained by skill, but it also means that you can struggle with abilities like the following:

Gain +1d to resistance rolls against the adversary affected by this ability.

this might seem straightforward, but can get confusing quick. if an adversary shoots a magic beam at you, then this obviously applies. what if the adversary picks up a rock and throws it at you? what if they manage to trick a third party into dealing with you for them, or use malicious rumors and social consequences to hurt you? what if they have an automated defense system that tries to hurt you without the adversary's knowledge that it's you specifically? these sort of interpretive ambiguities make huge differences in the power of these abilities. there are ways to solve for them, usually by establishing greater specificity:

Render a poisonous curse upon this adversary; gain +1d to resistance direct physical consequences they inflict on you.


Gain +1d to resist any social consequences this adversary attempts to inflict upon you.

but i can imagine situations where even these become ambiguous. damage over time effects struggle with a similar version of this problem, following on from our timing issue up above. how often should a damage over time effect fire? you can't rely on time in and of itself, because time is fluid in a narrative; you can't rely on "whenever this character takes an action" triggers, because what counts as "taking an action" is ambiguous when a character has no mechanics. even the question of damage is ambiguous; most of the buffs i've set up earlier don't operate directly on something like an HP bar, so what's a debuff going to operate on?

tell me yr thoughts

unlike my last tabletalk post, i have only the seeds of ideas here, rather than tips or guidelines. these are tricks that've worked for my drafts so far, but i haven't had the chance to test them out myself. i'd love to hear new ideas or suggestions, so if you have 'em, share 'em!

text reading "Are You Afraid in the Dark?"

With the new edition of Songs for the Dusk releasing tomorrow, Saturday July 30th and gameplay with FATHOM happening this Sunday, I wanted to take this FitD Friday to point folks towards the Are You Afraid in the Dark game jam happening right now over on itch!

I'm going to be honest and say Horror as a genre is not one I enjoy spending time in; likewise all the FitD experience I have says "please don't assume you need to hew so close to Blades as your point of origination". But there's plenty of opportunities to take what we know about the FitD core and use it to be cathartic, catastrophic, or catalyzing in the way horror can so often be. What does a FitD take on Phantom of the Opera, or Dracula Daily look like? Bluebeard's Bride remains one of the best unique takes on the Powered by the Apocalypse system; is there a feminine gothic horror story to tell using the FitD engine?

I think if I were to approach this idea, I'd build on an idea we first stumbled upon with the eternal-WIP island-romance FitD holiday game, Waves in the Heart, and build the game strongly around a bit of wordplay on the the engagement roll. In this case as an alternative to answering the following typical questions for +1D to the roll that sets the tone for the story:

  • Is the mission bold?
  • Does the plan’s detail expose a vulnerability of the target or hit them where they’re weakest?
  • Can any of your friends or contacts provide aid or insight for this operation?
  • Are there any other elements that you want to consider?

What if instead we made this engagement — the beginning of a union between two people — the focus of play rather than the prelude to play? I'm handwaving the setting and context as my nearest best influences (An Ideal Husband and a few medieval lais) aren't precisely horror by nature, but may serve some root to build an alternative feminine horror story. The goal here would be the act of discovery before and after, where legwork acts as both table-setting and role-playing with everyone circling the same core questions. At the point the questions are truly asked and you roll, derive some result of the roll from a series of tables, and then go around, Fiasco-style, narrating what happens from that point and whether staying together is even possible. As a starting batch of questions for this pivotal "engagement" roll, I might consider something like:

  • Do you know the worst thing your betrothed has ever done?
  • Can you say you love your betrothed honestly?
  • Do your friends and family still approve of the match?
  • Does your betrothed know the secret you keep from the world?

What horror do you feel comfortable creating stories about? Sound off in rechosts or the comments, and join the game jam on itch.io!

My friend, Amber (many know her as RocketOrca), has been working on the character sheets for my game and she shared her work in progress on twitter! I highly suggest you all check it out.

The official name of the game is Forged in the Dungeon.

Think Blades in the Dark smashed with Dungeon and Dragon.

I'm shooting to have v0.2 available to play before Gen Con. (I've volunteered to run it at Games on Demand there.)

You can give the project a follow on itch to be notified when it is available. https://labawesome.itch.io/forged-in-the-dungeon

The next edition of Songs for the Dusk, the post-apocalyptic science-fantasy tabletop RPG about building a better future, is going LIVE on Saturday in two weeks!

What's Songs?

Songs for the Dusk is a Forged in the Dark tabletop game set centuries after the fall of Earth as we know it and the rise of a new set of societies on our planet. In the world of Songs, ancient and advanced technologies collide and coexist with new forms of supernatural power. In Songs, you play striders, adventurers who strive to make the world a better place and to help other people survive the beautiful and dangerous new world they live in.

What's coming in v0.6?

A lot of things! v0.6 includes:

  • book layout!
  • maps for every region of Tamaris, including landmarks, all by the inimitable @dancynrew
  • full-featured factions for every region
  • the integration of Clockwork crafting
  • and more!

If you still go on The Bad Website, you can find Songs' Twitter account at twitter.com/songsforthedusk, but hopefully it won't be too much work to crosspost previews here as well. Please look forward to seeing more of this, and to the game's next version release in two weeks!