Like many folks on the indie side of the hobby, I have a habit of hacking and making games. Most of them don’t ever see the light of day. I’ve published a few, sure, but I wouldn’t call myself prolific.
Enter the #20in2020 challenge. The rules are simple: in the year 2020, you will write and publish 20 games or game-adjacent things. Hacks, supplements, specific settings, it doesn’t matter.
This works out to nearly 2 things published each month, so you need to hedge your bets a little – use the nearly complete things you have sitting around, combine them, hack them down to one page, or maybe even break something up into more than one publishable unit. The specifics are up to you. No one is going to judge you except yourself.
I know I don’t publish a lot on this blog much these days, but I expect to post about each new release, along with design notes here.
I also know myself, so I expect to start strong, but begin to falter a little come March or April. That’s where you all come in – I want to see people undertaking this challenge or similar ones and I want to talk about it and commiserate.
Unknown Armies (aff) is such a strange game in a strange world. Ostensibly, it is precisely my jam – a modern era game of occult strangeness fueled by obsession and instability. In the game world, the magickal reality is focused on the collective subconscious – aligning strongly with the way everyone thinks and believes creates avatars, while running perpendicular to it based on your own weird obsessions gives one the power of an adept.
There are a lot of mixed reviews in the wild, and I don’t really want to rehash that stuff. This isn’t a review. Instead this is about what I liked and what I did to buff out the rough edges of the system.
Things I Dig
The world as a whole. While UA bills itself as a horror game, I’m not convinced that’s right. The world is about weird people delving deep into their own psyches and reacting to the weird supernatural shit around them. You can do a lot with that.
Everything is a percentile. Yeah, percentile systems aren’t great, but there’s some added features in here that makes it nice. It’s still ultimately a pass/fail system without shades of grey, but that’s okay. More on handling success and failure in the next section.
Character capability is based on how much mental trauma they’ve faced. I think this is so wonderful. You take some isolation trauma and come out the other end being a little less secure in your social standing and a little more able to run away. Sometimes, though, you crumble under the pressure of the trauma. The shock meters in this game are great.
The Adept magic system is perfect. Adepts gain and hold on to charges by acting out their obsession, then they spend those charges to cast spells. Each school has its own way to gain charges and its own spell list.
Fighting with guns is handled quite well. If you’re not skilled and fire into a conflict, you basically just create suppressive fire and cause people to have to make stress tests to act amidst your shooting. If you’re skilled with a gun, you can use it like a weapon.
Percentile objectives are really cool. The whole Cabal has a singular objective they’re working towards and can increase it some percentiles at a time. At 100% they succeed, but they can also move to tackle the objective early and actually roll for it.
Things I Do Differently
The following are some of the things that I have shifted in the game to make it more my style. I know that some of these would “break the game” or “open it for abuse” but I just don’t play with players like that, so /shrug.
Light NPCs: I don’t give them stats and don’t roll for their actions – they act as responses to the PCs. When they act towards a PC in a way that causes mental trauma, I determine the rank of the test based on the preset list in the book (i.e. torturing their buddy, pointing a gun at them, etc). In this same vein, coercing a PC always succeeds (forcing them to choose to go along or make the test), but if they’re coercing or causing trauma to an NPC I will determine their rank on the fly or using the example lists in one of the supplemental books.
Fail Forward: When a roll fails, the fiction still moves forward. “You don’t do it” isn’t an option unless not doing it causes some other consequences. To this end, when a roll is failed, I make a choice: bring a known risk to bear; introduce a new twist or obstacle into the fiction that makes it more complicated; or offer them a cost in order to succeed. This skirts the hard pass/fail of a percentile system like this.
Imparting Knowledge: Notice and Knowledge are the type of skills I hate in RPGs because they hide information behind a roll. Instead, the way I use them is to not allow failure at all – they always get information, but if the roll is a failure, it’s either something negative they didn’t expect, or I offer them a cost to learn the details.
Identity Features: General Identities are supposed to have a set of three “features” that tell us when they can be rolled. Not only do I think that’s too much upfront work, but it also cheapens these identities. Instead, in any situation you can make a case for using an identity in place of a another ability, you can do it as long as it makes sense. This also goes for situations the Identity can be used in, like performing first aid or shooting a gun. These identities are packages of skills, and should function like them.
Passions and Obsession: Honestly, I think all of these should function the same way, to help smooth out the percentile system. So here’s how I do it. Fear, Rage, and Noble Passions all impart flip-flops whenever they’re relevant (fleeing your fear, acting on your rage, being noble) in the same way as the Obsession works. Though, if you face or confront your Fear you face a rank 10 trauma to the specified meter. Once per session, you can use any one of these (Obsession too) to gain a reroll of the dice, but afterwards you lose the flip-flop ability for the rest of the session.
Coercion: I don’t understand why this is closely locked to specific skills. Coercion is more about the fiction in my eyes. If lie through my teeth and say I’m able to call the bank at any time and have their house taken away, I’m most certainly attacking their Helplessness gauge. But by the book, I should be rolling Connect to coerce. However, Lie works best here. So what skills you use to coerce is based entirely on the situation.
Combat and Wounds: This hasn’t actually come up at all in my game (no combative types!), so it’s pure speculation. The game correctly doesn’t have a combat subsystem, but has this weird thing where the GM is supposed to track everyone’s wound level. I’m not gonna do that. Other than that, most of the other rules seem fine – sum the dice for wounds dealt by melee attacks (with some additions if using weaponry). When it comes to unskilled gun fire, I want to use the ones digit as the rank of the violence trauma in order to act. I think it adds some fun randomness.
I like what I’ve done with the system and want to see more of it. The game we’re playing now has a slightly limited lifespan, but I might end up running a second game with a different cast and story arc.
My game design takeaways are:
I love the idea of statted objectives at the group level, but maybe also the personal level. It’s a nice way to mechanize and understand working toward a complex goal and give weight to what is typically a “story arc” in a game. This can be done with clocks in a Forged in the Dark game or stress tracks in a Fate game, but as long as there’s some way to roll against it to try to achieve it, it works like they do in UA.
Stress gauges that affect your stats based on trauma are great. In a lot of other games, mental trauma (“sanity”, ick) is treated a bit like “hit points” – a scale measuring where you are from good to bad. What UA does though, is change your base ability due to how much trauma you’ve suffered.
Hey, I have a blog. I sometimes forget to write about game things! So here’s a slapdash, disorganized post of stuff!
I still have regular Thursday and Sunday games. The Thursday slot just finished up a game of World of Dew – this was a super fun game, with a lot of moving parts that felt like a more mechanized version of Fate. It had some stuff that worked well, and some stuff that our group clashed with.
One World of Dew thing I want to keep and reuse when possible: the Three Truths. When something new is introduced – a person, place, or similar – the GM asks for three things that are true about it. World of Dew isn’t exactly clear how this is supposed to go, but we kept round-robining the truths and it made for very interesting things added into the fiction. It was very neat most of the time.
But now Thursday has moved on to Band of Blades, which I’m running now. This is a Forged in the Dark game about a military legion on the back foot, fleeing from the oncoming undead hoards of the Cinder King. Band places in two phases – the Mission phase where individual squads and soldiers take on smaller tasks, and the Campaign phase where the actions of the Legion as a whole are determined. We play two hour sessions, so I intend to alternate Mission and Campaign phases each session. We’re only one session deep, so time will tell on this.
The Sunday game has move from Over the Edge to Unknown Armies 3e. Unknown Armies has some really really cool things in it, but also some hard trad game edges I bump against. I’ve had to modify much of how the game is run, but the setting and the world is perfectly in my wheel house. I intend to write a post soon about how I’m running UA, because I definitely include a lot of PbtA sensibilities in the game.
I’ve started a game of the latest edition of Over the Edge, and figured I’d do a little review and cover some things we did and how it shaped up.
For those unfamiliar, like I was, Over the Edge was a popular game from the 90s that I was only aware of in passing. I may have played a game once, without knowing what it was – some things feel familiar. A new version recently kick-started and I was interested enough to back at the physical level.
First thing’s first, the physical book is beautiful. The PDF is great too, but if you have a thing for nice looking RPG books, this is worth it.
But What is It?
I asked the same thing! What’s this new version about?
Well, being unfamiliar with the old version, I can’t really compare. I’ve heard that they fixed some dated ideas in the old system that could be offensive to some folks, but I don’t know what they are and don’t want to go sniffing. For me, I’m viewing this from an entirely new lense.
Over the Edge is a light game that tells weird stories that occur on the Atlantic island of Al Amarja. Al Amarja isn’t talked about in most of the world – this is because the Ultimate Democratic Republic of Al Amarja (UDRAA) is both hyper permissive and totalitarian at the same time, and most folks don’t approve.
See, on the island, freedom is paramount. There’s no intellectual property laws, or medical malpractice laws, or even rules against beating someone to death in a fight. Yeah, you can’t carry weapons (though everyone conceals something), and there’s security check points everywhere, and the State tracks everything you purchase on your issued Security Card, and the ever-present AI assistant may be tracking everything you do… but you can do anything you want!
People come from all over for the drugs (pick up an LSD latte at the corner cafe), or the fights (come and see seven people try to fight a lion with their fists), or experimental medicine (neutron-blade surgery is illegal in 142 countries, so come here), or even just to hide out from all the people in the world that don’t know this island exists.
One of the side effects of this permissiveness is that the weird people of the world all seem to end up here. You’ll find psychics, cyborgs, folks from parallel realities, aliens, energy beings, and much much more – every game is different, but there’s always something weird.
That Sounds Rad, How’s It Play?
The system itself is very light, and puts the character front and center in the story.
Characters are made up of four core characteristics – your main trait (a high concept detailing who you are and covers all the trappings that comes with it), your side trait (a secondary set of skills you may have, but not something that defines you), your trouble (something you do that’s more often a problem than not), and my favorite one of all, your question mark (a single word that describes your character, that you add a question mark to, as if to say you’re unsure and you want to see it in play). You put these things together to make some tells that inform us as the audience that your character is some or all of those things – if you’re a Burned CIA Agent, a tell might be your mirrored aviator glasses you always wear.
Characters also have a Level but it’s nothing like the levels in a traditional RPG. Levels range from 0 to 5 for PCs (6 and 7 are reserved for the GM’s characters). Your level basically says how good you are at all the stuff implied in your traits – 1 is competent, 2 is expert, 3 is elite, 4 is world-class, etc.
When you act against something, that thing also has a Level – it might be a person, a thing, or even a location. Being higher or lower level gives you advantages when rolling dice – that is, you always roll 2d6 with a target of 7 or 8, but level differences can give you 1 or 2 rerolls (or can let the GM force you to reroll if your level is lower). But there’s more! Every roll of a 4 produces some benefit, regardless of the actual outcome, and every roll of a 3 produces a consequence, regardless of the actual outcome.
Rolls in the game are fast and produce unexpected outcomes a lot. This is very much a game where getting to the dice is exciting because it takes the game new directions.
I’m not a setting lover. I don’t like dense setting material, and OTE has got it in spades. There’s a lot here, and it all cross references each other. So and so is a Mover… what is a Mover? A Mover is something who… and they work against the Cut-Ups…. the who? Oh the Cut-Ups, like this person… who? It goes round and round sometimes.
But after a few spins through, it all starts to click. What’s most important is two things:
The setting material is not canon. It is all just fodder for your game. There’s cool stuff in there, and it’s definitely fun to talk to other people about how YOUR Angela Reyes died once. But you don’t need to use much of it to run the game. It’s all heavy suggestions and fuel for your game.
Some stuff is open and never explained. Oh The Stitch is seeking Unity… where is this described? What is it? Guess I need to read between the lines.
With these two things in mind, we can see that my Edge will never be the same as anyone else’s Edge. And that, it feels like, is the exact point. Every Al Amjara exists in a parallel world. Over here Buck Williams wears a hawaiian shirt and became a prostitute, over here he is always in pajamas and is an awakened psychic node. That’s the Edge exactly! Similar, almost passingly familiar things that are mildly or starkly different from GM to GM or story arc to story arc or even session to session.
I really like this game a lot. My only qualms about the book are in content organization (so much “see page XX” in here) as well as how the rules and GM chapters are laid out. The mechanics are light, but there are some mechanical corners that I’m still unclear on.
Pick the game up and give it a spin, you won’t regret it. Or maybe you will.
Clink is a game by David Schirduan that I backed in June of 2017. I love Kintsugi, and Clink’s premise was wonderful, so it was a pretty easy choice.
Clink is a game about a group of Drifters all with some unified purpose (called a Creed). When the game begins, we know very little about these Drifters beyond their names, some things they bring with them, and a couple small ways they act.
The meat-and-potatoes of this system is the Flashbacks. At any time, players may spend a coin to have a flashback. They tell us the subject of this flashback, and then one player will ask a leading question that the actual flashback itself will answer.
There are also negative Flashbacks, called Scars. The Scars are used to give us some negative backstory to the characters, but also to pace the game – having more Scars than Flashbacks can trigger loss of the Creed OR dissolution of the posse.
Two months ago I finally got Clink to the table. We wanted a western, though Clink supports many genres, but decided to then up the weird a little bit. Thus the characters:
“Big Richard” Dickerson, a tall man covered in scars, with a wedding ring on a chain and a belt buckle that had an open, moving eye.
Alexander Witt, a pudgy man coming to down with a lost child and a stolen horse in tow.
And Philo, a psychic coyote wearing a necklace of human fingers, wearing a sombrero. Yeah, it’s that kind of game.
We entered Rustbarrel with a Creed of “Mr Silver will pay for what he did.” As per the game, no one knows what this means, and we’ll discover the past as we play.
First scene: The Saloon. The bartender tries to sho the coyote out, apologizing. “We got a problem with them in these parts, welcome, newcomers.” But Alexander tries to sweet talk the bartender into letting the mutt stay. We’re treated to our first Flashback – the LAST time Alexander had to apologize for Philo. There’s a poker game, a cheating coyote involved, and other details I can’t recall.
Back in the present, they pump the bartender for information, Big Richard has some booze spilled on his hands (hitting one of his Triggers) and he flips out, almost causing a shootout with some patrons. He Flashes back to the another shootout where he killed the father of the girl who now follows Alexander.
After a little bit of information gathering, they head to the small town bank to find the woman who runs it, as she supposedly has information on Mr Silver. She offers payment for them to leave and forget about Mr Silver – an obviously guilty move, but she’s giving them each what a rancher would make in a year. They hesitate. Big Richard tries to negotiate for me, and fails the roll, so her toughs start a fight.
The brawl heads out into the street, and Philo headbutts one of them, sending his gone flying – but this hits a Trigger and he runs off to fetch the gun.
The rest of the session is blurry, but I know that Mr Silver escapes, despite Alexander stealing his fine white horse. Ultimately we see Mr Silver board a train as the posse looks on from a cliff above.
We will later come to have a a few more sessions using my Strange Drifters game. But Mr Silver has gotten away both times – most recently by transforming train wreckage into a giant mechanical spider and running off into the sunset.
But that’s not Clink. Clink is this game, and is really fun. Check it out!
I’ve been away from blogging for a bit – no particular reason, just generally busy.
I did finally throw up an itch.io page at https://aaronmgriffin.itch.io/, replete with a weird west game I’ve been toying with called Strange Drifters that’s inspired by Psi*run and Clink. Check it out and throw some feedback on the page if you have any.
I’m working on a throwing up a few Torchbearer related things soon: the first being the current iteration of my urban TB rules, and the second being TB rules for “void travel” – taking voidships out into the space between realities.
This is short review I’ve been meaning to write about Rose Bailey’s Bright & Terrible – a game about the last survivors of the great society of Atlantis as they travel a world that once paid homage to them. To quote the opening:
With the Atlantean boot no longer on their backs, the human kingdoms rejoice and throw off their regents and satraps, entering an age of giddy prosperity and bloody war.
It is this world in which you wash up upon the shore of the Sea of Sorrows. You are a noble of Atlantis, perhaps even the Indigo Empress herself. You carry with you a fell weapon from the shadow vaults, before which all must cower, flee, or simply die.
Your exile is ruled by two opposites: the Bright aspect of a once great ruler, and the Terrible aspect of a once horrible tyrant. In this way, the games resolution system reminds me strongly of Trollbabe or Lasers & Feelings – roll under or over, based on your actions.
The great bit of tech in this resolution system is in the interaction between the three colors of dice you roll – black for being a hero, red for your impending doom, and green for companions or outside aid. When different dice match, consequences are brought to bear – doom may come to pass, companions may be slain, it’s all built into the interaction of these dice.
The other system you have at your disposal is the ability to narrate a Glory or Tragedy flashback of old Atlantis – by doing this you may change the aspect used in a roll to snatch success from the jaws of defeat.
The game has short advice for playing and running it, so it needs folk familiar with role-playing. But it doesn’t need a GM unless you want one – the entire second half of the book is a series of evocative tables for generating adventures.
I’ve been sitting on that game for a while, and I regularly go to reread it. It hits that “tragic, powerful wanderer” trope so well. If that’s your thing, check it out.
At 24 pages it’s a quick read, but it packs a big punch.
I’m not much for making lists of things, but let’s try my hand and see what comes of it.
Below you will find a list of d6 strange shops found somewhere in Rivage.
Clegulo’s Waxes and Oils. Famous for their high quality mustache wax. Clegulo has massive, shaped, and ever-changing facial hair, with a large affable personality to match. He’ll let his friends in the backroom where he sells all manner of torqlock pistols (a full winding will last for ten shots).
The Bookbreakers. Clim and Flen are twin scarabae, small and elderly, who run this shop piled high with a maze of books. They will give you cash for any book, and will promptly destroy it in some unique and catastrophic manner. Somewhere in their shop is a portal to The Stygian Library, and the Librarians want them dead.
Strings n’ Things. An oddly named debt-broker’s shop, run by the yokai Thyln – self proclaimed “greatest debt-broker in seven worlds”, she prides herself on having debts on all the big players. Trade enough coin or favors and you, too, can get into anyone’s good graces.
The Opalescent Owl. A strigi only tavern and brothel run by a hawkish old fellow named M’kree. M’kree is secretly the current host of a parasitic refugee from a recently dead world. At night, M’kree meets with fellow hosts in the storage room, as they try to adjust to their new normal.
Whisper & Chant. This tiny shop tucked away in a dingy alley provides a much sought after service in the city – Grignoli, the alfar proprietor, is a necromancer of great repute, and for a few coins she will question the corpses brought to her. Rumors say, though, that she keeps any weak spirit for herself.
Dodgy Wailer’s. This tavern and entertainment joint isn’t sanctioned by the Guild of Song, a point which often resulted in attacks and raids by the Guild. But that all stopped when Mr and Mrs Pratt took over. This troll couple are secretly pacifists, but their horrible visages and ability to grow larger or smaller on demand has made the Guild look the other way.
Out in the blogosphere, Tristan and Dan are posting about what truly makes their setting work at its core. I’ve decided to do the same. Below you will find the six primary themes that make up The Planarch Cantos – the omniversal, reality hoping, infinite spanning setting I try real hard to run games in.
I don’t think I do a good job of expressing these things in play, so I’m hoping writing this will give me a focus to think back on during the game.
1. Everything Ends
Every Canto in the omniverse is a unique song in the void. Except Rivage, for the City is the antithesis, the end of these songs.
When Rivage consumes another world, it ends. The places, the cultures, the peoples. Even for those that survive as refugees in the City itself, nothing will ever be the same – what has come before is no more.
This is true of everyone and everything. Nothing lasts forever.
2. Each End Creates A Beginning
As the City consumes and destroys, it also builds itself – new places, different places, amalgams of many things. And the refugees that come to the City for safety? Their cultures, their bloodlines, too become changed. They begin something new.
Though everything ends, these endings give space for new growth, new creation. Death begets life.
3. No One Is Really In Charge
When folk search for meaning, they often find it. When they search for power, they find that, too. Every block, every district in the City has some little warlord or savior or bastion that controls and organizes it. Often they bend the knee to someone greater.
But no one, no matter how big, is truly in charge of everything they think they’re in charge of. There are always those more powerful, always those who seek their weakness.
Many may think they’re in charge, but no one truly is.
4. There Is No Black And White, Just Grey
The thousands of cultures and philosophies in Rivage may be enough to clue you in, but if not, take it to heart: there is no such thing as “good” and “evil” here. It’s all a matter of degrees. Everyone thinks they’re in the right – you think a villain sees themselves as villainous?
Sure, the Rulekeepers’ll try to tell everyone how to be, and how to live, but the rules of the streets don’t often listen to what those in power want. Even the staunchest defender of life will kill when necessary; even the most crooked thief will give when needed.
5. Life Follows A Pattern
There is great variety in the realities of the omniverse, but for some reason, there’s not as much among her peoples.
Nearly every worldsphere ever recorded has Humans. They are like a fungus – hardy, tough to get rid of, and spread everywhere.
Most worlds have Alfar – beings with a connection to the natural world. While they often present as smaller Humans, there is always some tell to set them apart – small horns, cloven hooves, pointy ears, furry feet, or what have you.
There’s others that show up on multiple worldspheres, to lesser degrees – the Trolls, ugly hulking creatures with an affinity for dark, hidden places; the Yokai, small furry shapeshifters with a penchant for trickery; the Scarabae, deadly brutes who hide philosophers’ minds beneath thick exoskeletons; and the Strigi, the feathered nobles, selfish and disloyal.
There’s an unlimited number of other folks, but they’re few. Last of their kind, usually. All the rest come from one worldsphere, and if they’re in the City, their world is long gone.
6. There Are Things Outside Of What We Know
The void between worldspheres is not empty. There are things out there. Places, entities, and other strangeness that doesn’t fit inside what we view as real and truthful.
Celestials and Infernals are known by many, even outside the City – they are the creators and destroyers, the things outside reality, either worshiped or reviled. They live in the void, come from the void, but are obsessed with the real. Their motives are opaque, but those in the know categorize them by their schemes – Infernals take, and Celestials give.
Constructs are not from the void – they are created life. Powerful magic, faith, or any number of things can create them. But by all accounts, these creations should not be. Whatever power animates them and gives them purpose is beyond mortal comprehension.
Then there’s the Astrals – a collective word for all the folk from various worldspheres who have chosen or adapted to live within the void itself. Most travel in great ships or live on worldshards – crumbs left in Rivage’s wake. There are whole societies, great and small, among the Astrals.
Setting Inspirations and Touchstones
There are many things I can point to that inspire me. Here’s everything I can think of (Drivethru links are affiliate links).
Jack Shear’s wonderful Umberwell is a fantasy city after my own heart – full of dirty and grime and fiends and moral grey areas.
The Planarch Codex is where I got the name and the idea of a consuming city. Very light supplement for Dungeon World that can be used almost anywhere.
The Planescape Campaign Setting will always be in my heart. This is the original D&D I grew up with. Two additional books stand out even if you don’t want to use the whole campaign setting – In The Cage covers Sigil, “The Cage”, the great city at the center of the cosmos; and Uncaged covers NPCs and locations in Sigil.
Spelljammer is another setting from the Planescape era with ships that sailed the space between worlds on the Prime Material plane. That concept has been plucked wholesale into The Planarch Cantos.
Last time I spent some time looking at the Planarch Codex method of specifying dungeons based on themes. A core component of this method is the countdown – typically a series of checkboxes that are checked as a given theme or danger rears its head. Let’s quote the Codex’s CC licensed text here:
Countdown: Name the danger—a corruption, a desire, etc.—and
tell the player to draw six boxes, filling in the first.
Next time, tell them to fill in more or offer incentives to
do so. When all the boxes are full, boom, it happens. If
they ask, tell them a way out.
This is intended to be a GM move, but later we’re presented with a mechanic for checking boxes that involves a typical PbtA 2d6 spread.
Instead, what I’d suggest is a simple flat d3 roll – but give the characters opportunity to add ±1 to this roll based on preparedness or circumstance. If an action moves the Countdown forward or a risk is brought to bear, roll a d3 and tick that many boxes. Often you don’t know how much of an impact you actions may have until they’re done.
Consider that with a typical range of 1-3 boxes ticked, a three box Countdown has potential to end abruptly with a good roll. Likewise, a 6 box Countdown could take a long time if the dice are not favorable. I personally like the 3-6 range for most Countdowns because of this. Longer Countdowns could take multiple sessions, or long involved actions. I wouldn’t use shorter Countdowns – a length of 1 or 2 is more or less an extra roll after some sort of character success.
Using Countdowns Effectively
A Countdown should always be attached to a singular thing that is clear: either the time until a thing happens, or the amount of a thing remaining. Keep the names of the Countdowns obvious, so it clearly communicates what is going to happen. Things like:
Countdown: The King’s Demonic Possession [ ][ ][ ]
Countdown: Pack of Goblins [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]
Countdown: Cave Collapse [ ][ ][ ][ ]
This is covered in Rob Donoghue’s Clockery article better than I could manage. Each Countdown should have a single purpose, not be filled with dense information at each step of the way.
But expanding on the article, you might wish to have an “escalation point” during a Countdown. Often escalations do not mean the end of the Countdown, just a change. Notate these escalation points like so:
The zombie onslaught continues unabated for 7 ticks of the countdown, but at some point the Lich Queen arrives. Notice that the Incursion end without the Lich Queen arriving – we can tick 3 boxes at once and skip right over it.
This is important, because an escalation is an independent event that happens – it may still affect the countdown, but once the Lich Queen has arrived, she isn’t beholden to the Countdown.
The interesting bit here is that we probably won’t skip over the escalation point, and we have two competing Countdowns. As the character’s actions help the villagers, they risk the bridge collapsing. When it tips, villagers may be in peril, and helping them is that much harder.
Types of Countdowns
Previously I talked about using Countdowns for generating a space to be explored – using themes or dangers present in the place, and then rolling to see which were present, if any. I’d call those Exploration Countdowns – used to create a place. These are passive Countdowns that sit squarely on the GM side of the table. Exploration Countdowns tick once per scene, and tick again when the scene changes.
The examples above are mostly Event Countdowns – used to indicate when something will occur, or when something will end. These are active Countdowns that are directly impacted by character actions, and should be clearly shown to the players (keeping escalation points hidden until they occur is completely fine, but optional). Event Countdowns tick multiple times per scene based on character actions.
We can also use something called a Project Countdown to reflect passive activities the characters try to help with. These are a special type of Event Countdowns that usually take a long time to accomplish. Imagine building a church in a small town – the villagers may do most of the work, but it is a slog. When the characters get involved, it moves much faster. Or perhaps supplies are lacking and the characters need to help. When characters do actual work on the project, that’s a good time to give a +1 bonus to the roll. Project Countdowns tick once or twice per session.
And finally, we have Faction Countdowns that show how important people or groups move toward their goal. These are a specialized Project Countdowns that occur in the background. The character’s overall actions in a session should provide the ±1 for the roll, but can also fully disrupt a Countdown, removing it from the board. When a Countdown ends or is disrupted irrevocably, immediately write up a new one for the faction – they never sit still. Faction Countdowns tick once between sessions.
I instinctively pace a lot of things in this manner when GMing. Most of these Countdowns are improvised, because that’s how I do things. But my intention is to use Faction Countdowns to provide a living world full of groups vying for different goals.