#tabletalk tuesday

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.

or

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!



i have been thinking a lot about disability in tabletalk rpgs lately, mostly because people keep fucking it up in really obvious ways.

A screencap of an RPG book section titled "Practicing Safe Cyber," which distinguishes between the safe "medical-grade cyberware" and therapeutic cybernetics and cybernetic augmentations, which implicitly lower a character's Humanity score and lead to "cyber psychosis."

from cyberpunk red. to quote my good friend nathan @jakobvongunten: "trans and disabled people love when you make distinctions between 'medically/therapeutically necessary' and 'elective' procedures"

cyberpunk tends to be one of the worse offenders in this genre, but rest assured that most sci-fi is prone to similar problems and so's fantasy — the fact that physical scarring leads directly to social debuffs regardless of context in games like Heart: The City Beneath and Dungeon World comes to mind here. i think there's several things at play here, and i want to talk about what they might be and ways to address them. i want to start with a general principle about how to address what i think might be behind some of the mindset that produces this kind of thing, and then cover four basic tips to avoid it.

THE GENERAL PRINCIPLE: LETTING GO OF ANXIETY ABOUT WHETHER ONE'S BODY IS ADEQUATE

disclaimer: this may not be applicable to every person reading this! as the saying goes, all advice is autobiographical, and this is certainly a mistake i made and had to fix (thankfully well before it got to the publishing stage.) but i think it is a useful principle to keep in mind: you do not need to justify the existence of different kinds of bodies in your games.

about two editions of Songs for the Dusk ago, i was trying to figure out the three types of people you can be (the type we have today, furries, and robots), and i recall having written a great deal of material to "balance" them — furries and robots would get animal parts and robot parts, and then normal humans would get a "general buff" to equalize them. a friend talked to me about this and was like, hey: why do the factory-edition humans need to be "brought up to par" with the other kinds? i thought about it and was like, right, they don't. this is an anxiety about whether being human is worth it if you can be "better."

to that end, i found it useful (and you may too) to make an effort to let go of the idea of "better." i feel like a lot of cyberpunk is wrapped up in anxieties about no longer being the best — racially, in terms of the fear of various asian countries hijacking the position that the west once held in global politics and economics, and bodily in terms of the fear of what cybernetic augmentations could mean for our "natural state." the cyberpsychosis stuff from project red feels pretty fundamentally designed to offer the soothing reassurance that yes, the natural human state is perfectly adequate, and exceeding it always carries a price, so there's no need to feel inadequate. the most reliable way i have found of getting past this is accepting that it doesn't matter if machines become capable of that which we once thought was exclusive to humankind. we aren't valuable because we're unique, or because we're the best, or because we're capable of performing to some standard. we're valuable because we are.

i'm making a point of starting with this principle for a reason: it matters the most out of anything in this post. the fact is, fucking up in good faith on any of what follows is tolerable. some people won't be thrilled about reading it, but they'll accept it if it's written with the understanding that the author doesn't think of the body as a symbol for whatever their social anxieties are. fuck that principle up — treat the body as a canvas and real configurations of it as tools for thematic storytelling rather than simple facts of the world — and people will be much less generous.

TIP 1: DON'T TRY TO BALANCE MINDS AND BODIES

i've covered this somewhat already, but it's worth getting into in depth here: in the same vein that you don't need to justify the existence of different kinds of bodies, you don't need to balance different kinds of bodies in your games.

this is probably in your awareness already if you've ever been frustrated with D&D's racial bonuses system, but it applies just as well in this context as well. in many cases, there's a design urge to balance bonuses of various types so that every player is starting out with an equally balanced body. humans may get a +1 to everything, but orcs get a +2 to con and improved healing. balanced! you can take the mute disability to get extra points in intelligence or whatever. again, balanced!

you don't need to do this, and in fact, probably shouldn't. the question of whether these aspects of a person even should be turned into numbers is a thorny problem in its own right, but suffice it to say that you don't need to make those numbers reflect the body and the mind, or to average them out according to certain mind and body categories. this isn't me saying throw away stats entirely (i'd be a hypocrite to do so), but it is me cautioning against using them as a way to justify the existence of different kinds of people. at the end of the day, people just are. they have a range of capabilities, and that range is sometimes affected by what you can see and sometimes by what you can't.

practically speaking, i think Forged in the Dark games have gone a long way towards sidestepping this by focusing on rating actions rather than traits. "i have a 4 in Skirmish" says nothing about your character's body and demands nothing of it except the end result. i don't know that this is necessarily a perfect solution, but to my mind it's a strong start.

TIP 2: UNDERSTAND THAT DIAGNOSES ARE INVENTED CATEGORIES AND THAT DISABILITIES ARE ENVIRONMENT-SPECIFIC

medical science's tendency towards specific causal links is a useful one, but it's still worth remembering: a disease and its diagnosis start as a collection of symptoms, and pick up an explanation through research later.

when you think about infectious diseases, these processes seem (and typically are) fairly straightforward: all of the symptoms are a result of a single agent, which is a bacteria or a virus, and if you stop that thing, the disease stops. but many of the diagnoses we live with — depression, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis, etc. — aren't that simple. we understand depression as having a few different causes, the research is very much out on "what causes autism," if anything, and CFS/ME remains to this day something of a blanket condition/"we don't know what to do with you" diagnosis. these diagnoses are made of two things: 1. a collection of associated systems, which may or may not have a singular cause, and 2. significant reason to accept that these symptoms are debilitating enough to demand addressal.

this leads me to the second point: disabilities are specific to a person's context and their environment. for small stuff, this is obvious — a hayfever allergy doesn't matter to someone who doesn't live near their allergens, and we largely don't consider nearsightedness a disability because very little of modern life requires 20/20 vision and the parts that do can adjust for it with very little trouble. but the fact remains that this is true even at the broader scale; autism, for example, is a disability not because there is something inherently socially impairing about the autistic mind, but because allistic social norms demand social conformity and punish people for deviating from it. in a society that didn't feel the need to punish that deviation, it's likely that autism wouldn't exist as a diagnosis, or that social difficulties wouldn't be part of it — we might instead just have a "prone to sensory overload" condition, or maybe we simply wouldn't categorize people this way at all.

this is worth thinking about in your worldbuilding especially, because not every society you build is necessarily going to value the same traits that modern western society does. it's especially relevant when addressing something like the "scarred" disabilities i mentioned earlier. hell, any number of people in today's societies will tell you scars are hot; this is pretty obviously proof that the primary question of scars here has nothing to do with their effect on your body and more to do with how other people respond to you. none of this is to say "so there's no such thing as disability," because of course there is, but it's worth remembering: disabilities are specific to the societies in your game, and if those societies have different values than the one you live in, then the things considered disabling in them will be different too.

TIP 3: ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ARE USED TO MANAGE DISABILITIES, NOT TO ERASE THEM

people who wear contacts have to take them out every night. this is not a surprise to anyone, i'm sure; we all know how contacts work. i bring it up because contacts are perhaps the most unobtrusive assistive tech we have — they're even more inconspicuous than glasses. and they STILL have to come off every night. the point i am driving at here is that there is virtually no assistive technology that can erase a disability; everything we have ever devised is used to manage them instead. modern myoelectric prosthetics are largely imperfect, to say nothing of the conditions demanded by insurance companies of their users. sci-fi and fantasy love to play with hyperadvanced cybernetics or clockwork-enchanted prosthetic limbs, but as is often the case in situations like these, some of the more mundane realities associated with their use — maintenance, expense, etc. — are often left behind.

of course, there is the fact that you're writing about an advanced future or a magical world, which is why i wouldn't suggest that the assistive technology you create must be bound by the same laws as the real stuff. but it's worth recalling that you, as an author, are ultimately writing for today's audience, and i generally consider it a good call to have your writing reflect that. hell, if it helps — every time you include a prosthetic in your game, ask yourself if the people who use it sleep with it on. consider the mundane aspects of how your assistive technologies work, and the situations in which they might not.

TIP 4: DON'T GAWK

this is one of the more straightforward ones, and one you probably already understand if you are any kind of minority, but for real: quit staring. this applies to disabled people in and of themselves, but it also applies to the assistive technologies they use, too. from a writing perspective, this means not hyperfocusing on bodily difference or assistive technology, because this inevitably alienates your disabled characters from the abled ones. let these things fade into the background sometimes, and exist as just one more entry in the library of ways people can live.

we are at the end of the post now

at the end of the day, a lot of this advice could be boiled down to "disabled people are people too," but if there's one thing i want to drive home it's the focus on mundanity here. a disabled life is a life, and lots of people live disabled lives which are full of not just the same joys and sorrows but the same maintenance and habits that abled people's lives are. most people put on shirts in the morning; some put on limbs too. the social rules we use to separate abled from disabled are, at the end of the day, somewhat arbitrary. if you can move past the mental block of comparing people against each other, it becomes much, much easier to grasp this.

(many thanks to @cass @avi & @boo-cool-robot for prompting the discussion that led to this post and having a lot of very intelligent things to say about it! tune in next tuesday for more tabletalk thoughts, if i have them.)