oh they fixed posting
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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?
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!
Spire: The City Must Fall (Spire) is a roleplaying game that heavily relies on its setting. First, it presents a premise that emerges from the titular spire and its politics. This is a mile high tower-city of dark elves now ruled by an Aelfir government. The Drow are oppressed by this government, and the game is generally about how the drow involved in a religious spy network called The Ministry resist this occupation in small clandestine cells. If you would like to learn more about Spire, I advise purchasing the book, or visiting the Rowan, Rook, and Decard discord server. Before we get started, I do want to disclose my methodology. I am drawing on one 14-session campaign of Spire to analyze some aspects of the game. We played the Kings of Silver adventure (which I will not be discussing at length), which I mention in case you can glean some insight that I have missed.
What we Did
For characters, I played an Azurite, and the other players chose to play a Bound, a Lajhan, and an Inksmith. In generic terms, I was a cleric of a commerce god, and my associates were Batman, a Community Cleric, and a Pulp-noir demigod, respectively. Our cell (as two of us were proper Ministers, and the other recruited for the cell but still independent) were directed to destabilize a political power play in motion on one floor of the Spire that was entirely casinos. Throughout our campaign, our two priests and two investigators decided to take an indirect approach to this task. While we could have wined and dined throughout high society and perhaps been fine, our strategy changed when we realized that if we worked through the less powerful people connected to our rivals, then rolls we would have to make would be more likely to succeed. In a way, I suspect we might be guilty of metagaming the fiction in terms of what fallouts might make narrative sense to apply to us. Oh well!
What was Good
The abilities that characters have access to in this game afford incredible narrative control to the players. These abilities are fun, such as being able to know what someone’s greatest desire is, to incredibly powerful, such as being able to appear in any scene the Game Master narrates. Not only is using these abilities incredibly fun, planning on how to coordinate them is electric. The Skills and domains are two sets of boxes to tick. Skills are Verbs and Domains are a kind of contextual element. You add a die to your pool for rolling if you have a skill or domain that applies to the action you’re taking. To me these are the true gems of Spire. It is so interesting to think of how domains imply things about characters (as they outline their comfort or adeptness in a given situation). The cultural institutions that Classes are incorporated into provides a fresh cast of characters to embody and enjoy. This is a fantasy that while at first analogous to traditional archetypes (There is a Knight afterall), is really coming from a different angle entirely. I would argue that it is reductive to compare the Spire classes to your standard adventuring party. They’re so tied to Spire that it’s a different experience. So much of that is owed to the world of Spire being fun. It is strange, it is goofy, and it has room for you to get in.
Resistances and Fallout Tests If you fail a roll or only find a mixed success, you might not even have to worry about it. Without a complete success, you take stress (of a particular flavour such as Blood, Silver, or Reputation). More dangerous things will roll larger dice to determine how much stress they inflict on your character. Particular Classes will ignore the first few tally marks of a particular resistance (reputable classes have reputation “protection” to reflect this). Once your tally exceeds your protections, you are facing a fallout test whenever you take stress. This fallout test is simply your Game Master trying to roll under the sum of your stress of all kinds. There is a variant rule where stress is only assigned to its own resistance and the Game Master tries to roll under that total to trigger the fallout. There is some reason for this I think: why am I in more danger of being killed by a sword if all I have done is spent a lot of money? Yet after playing Spire I would not pass up the immediacy of the original rule. I simply do not fear fallout as I once did. It comes, it passes (if you can imagine how to handle it), and you carry on with play. Again, at the start I was very attentive to the risk of moderate fallout. That risk felt very real. Then after I received one, cleared stress, and handled it after the mission I started acting more boldly. This reaction leads me to recognize that Fallouts are not unified as punishments, they also share a space with the fiction moving forward. It’s not that they uniformly escalate the stakes either, sometimes they feel like sidequests that characters go off to resolve. Either way, if you want interesting things to happen in Spire, keep pushing. It’s often when you don’t take the minor or moderate fallout and find yourself in range of Severe fallout that things get dicey, but Spire is already gating these moves behind the fallout test so when I came to these points, I chose to push forwards anyways.
On Inevitability and Pumping the Brakes
The pacing of Spire is beholden to Stress and Fallout, the progression of tension that they describe gives Spire a consistent theme through a mechanical design. Sometimes it is overbearing and runs up against how the players and game master want to tell a story. If the Game Master wants to impose something on a player character, they have to wait until that character takes a fallout. Spire is distinct in that it stands apart from other games with this. Whereas consulting the result of a dice roll is when a Game Master begins to interact with the fiction, in Spire they must wait for the Fallout Test. At its best, these rules expedite deciding on a consequence to picking one from a list. At its worst, it is getting in the way.
On the Structural Impositions of Fallouts
I think I get what fallouts have to offer, and why some GMs that have run Resistance games for me have expressed their dissatisfaction with them. Let’s take an example of a fallout from Spire: “Arrested.” In some ways I think that this is fallouts at their best. I received it after failing a fallout test that followed taking shadow stress, so it represents things going wrong as my clandestine actions attracted suspicion. How did I resolve an arrest warrant? These are really up to the player to take the initiative and figure out how to resolve (and thus clear) it. If this were a Blood fallout, I could visit a bond who was a doctor (and get stitched up, medicated, etc.) and so it follows that a Spire character could also meet with a character who could reduce an Arrested Fallout. Game logic is imposing an opportunity for the player to establish a narrative solution. I used an “acquisition” (a sort of downtime move from The Magisters Guide Sourcebook) to reduce the Arrested fallout (which I fled via zipline btw) to a Wanted Fallout, which was then resolved not by my character being taken in, but simply with a conversation with a captain of the guard off the books and in a hellish abandoned subway tunnel. That is to say, Fallouts are not always paired with a way to “solve them” for a player, especially if they’re only reading their character abilities and relying on the GM to offer a suggestion. I would presume that people understand the A to B of seeking medical expertise for healing, but players might not be familiar with who to go to if they need to de-escalate an arrest warrant (especially given Spire’s anti-authoritarian bend). What to do with this? When I run Spire, I plan to slip in one NPC that could be sought out to assist with handling these things.
Relative to other Games
I think that Powered by the Apocalypse games have conditioned a great deal of us to understand the “mixed success” in a particular way. Personally, coming off of Dungeons and Dragons (3.5, 4th, and 5th edition) to the mixed success was interesting because a mixed success could mean the Game Master could change the fiction via an element not connected to the initial scope of the roll’s concern. This kind of misdirection, where rolls can affect things for ill that players are not directly engaged with or capable of manipulating, really sold me on PbtA games; I have always thought this quirk was neat. Forged in the Dark haunts Spire. Difficulty for rolls in Spire are Risky, which removes one die from the pool before it is rolled, or Dangerous which removes two. This is similar to the Blades metric, where players and antagonists square up to determine who is more powerful in the moment, and the Game Master determines the player characters positioning as desperate, risky, or controlled. Both are concerned with determining how the player stands against their task, but Blades will explain this in how poorly things will turn out, or how little of an impact an action will have. Spire will just make that action more unlikely to succeed; the outcome is regulated the size of the stress die and the likeliness of the Fallout test. Returning to Resistance Games, the infliction of stress onto characters is a consistent punishment to players and seems so punishing as to justify restricting the GM from making any other narrative moves against the player characters. It is precisely that the scope of the fallout (which may or may not even happen) always connects to the most recent threat to the character that we miss out on this misdirection, and with that the Game Master is locked out from an affordance these other story game heavy-weights: the ability to massage the narrative. If you would like to run a game where the system handles the pacing, and contributes to a consistent tone, then Spire can do that. If you want to slip in to add something to a scene, spurred by the moment, you will have to circumvent the rules which your players might not think is fair.
I will probably end up running Spire for friends, but it is not my new game to run period. Spire is something I will take on when I do not really want to get too involved in the narrative. The fallout system is oddly robust enough for its size that I can just resign myself to filling in consequences like its a form, and more energy can be spent to hamming it up as a goofy NPC. I do not think I will be hacking the Resistance toolbox as is. I plan on waiting to see how FATHOM or Case & Soul develop before proceeding. The fallout system as a narrative pacing aid is not really to my design tastes, but I am interested in how it can model taking damage and checking for critical hits. In the end, I want to emphasize something I said at the beginning: the world building of Spire is phenomenal. Honestly, I would attributed my enjoyment of the game to the act of playing someone who lived there; for that experience alone I think you should check out Spire.