Cut it Like a Pie

Friday, August 21st, 2020

Forged in the Dark games tend to have a multi-part meta-structure to play that I am finding very enjoyable. The types of actions and play that take place in each phase of that structure are differentiated from one another and simply utilize variations on the core mechanic.

This started me thinking about how OSR-type games could benefit from this meta-structure, and how I already use a pseudo-structure like this in play: for example, how downtime and travel are separated into mechanically-discrete phases of play when I run a game. I started wondering what this BitD meta-structure would look like for an OSR game, and a quick sketch emerged with around eight phases of varying complexity and length…but that’s a lot of phases, so I went back to ruminating on the issue.

After some consideration, it occurred many of what I was thinking of as phases were really activities within phases, in the way Entanglements and Long-term Projects are activities within the Downtime portion of a Blades in the Dark session. This cut the number of phases down to a much more reasonable four.

Phases may sound like adding a lot of extra fiddly-bits to play, but it turns out phases don’t add or change anything about the game: “adding” phases is actually just naming already extant, discretely identifiable sections of play. This simply codifies pieces of the existing process, which is actually very helpful and valuable in terms of providing more tools to use in play.

Let’s discuss these phases, why I’ve ordered them as such, and what sorts of things happen during each. (I’m also going to use some terms and ideas herein that I haven’t posted to the blog yet. Just stare in curiosity and wonderment at them, I’ll probably get around to defining them eventually for all zero of the people reading this besides myself.)

Let’s discuss the Campaign phase first, even though this is usually the last phase: I’m doing so simply because it provides an easily identifiable part of normal play as an introductory example. The Campaign phase is normally when the nature and goal of the next adventure is decided, and that remains the case here, with the exception that some or all of this is best handled at the conclusion of an adventure, rather than the start of the next.

There are multiple ways the choice of a new adventure can be made: random rolls on the Adventure Tables to produce a Adventure, the players choosing a general type of Adventure and a few details for the DM to work from, or a player-requested or story-derived Adventure the players declare they wish to pursue.

The players also engage in Preparation activities during this phase: they choose whom among their available characters will be going on the Adventure, decide if and how they Gather Information about the Hazards ahead, Plan the Route they are going to take, decide what Equipment to bring with, and Hire new Retainers or call upon their existing ones.

The players may wait until the start of the next session to do some of this, after the DM has all the details worked out and from which questions can be answered and necessary, needed details provided. (The DM could also instead answer those questions before working out the exact details, then use those quick answers to work up the details of the Adventure between sessions — however it is your group and DM prefer to handle it.)

There might be some Free Play scenes interspersed among these events, where the characters haggle over equipment prices, save a Retainer from an angry thug, mollify their concerned parents, visit a sage for some advice, consult the royal locksmith, or slip out of town ahead of a bounty hunter, as desired by the players. Or they may skip all this to jump right to the action.

The Travel phase is when the characters set out on their journey to the adventuring site. The GM describes the lands and countryside the party passes through, setting the mood with scenery, environmental details, and interesting locales the characters pass-by, or that are available for quick exploration during an Encounter scene: such as stopping in a local village to catch up on the latest gossip and rumors, poking around in the remnants of an old stone watchtower, taking shelter from a storm in a shallow cave for the night, or so on. This is up to the players, they don’t have to stop to Explore, they can merely enjoy the ambiance.

The Travel phase isn’t restricted to long journeys, this phase is simply about establishing the mood and detail, whether the adventure location is a two-week journey into the wilds or in a character’s vegetable garden just outside their bedroom. The same potential for Encounter scenes exist when the players become interested in the details: asking a beggar on a street what she saw, chatting with a nervous guard standing watch at a tomb’s iron gate, scouring the riverbank for footprints or spoor.

Encounter scenes during Travel aren’t absolute events, they occur when the characters decide to Explore an interesting feature during the Travel phase, or due to Random Encounter checks. Encounters are short, encompassing a single Challenge event, or are scene-length events such as a short battle against a foe(s). Encounters should not side-track Travel to the chosen adventuring site (but might if the players decide they want to or need to chase something else down for some reason).

Encounters can (and often should) be tied to the main Adventure — they can be used to provide more details, news, gossip, or background information; foreshadow or introduce Factions and their NPCs; and so on. Escaping dangerous Encounters should always be an option, though it might leave the party a bit beaten up or bereft of some important resources (though it doesn’t have to). Encounter battles can also be handled as Challenge events if the players are champing to get to the main Adventure.

The Adventure phase is the adventure proper that the characters have outfitted themselves for, and spent time (and maybe money) getting information and details about. This phase is the core of play and contains all the usual dungeon-delving, quest-solving, monster-fighting action. Pull out your module, ready your narrator’s voice, and jump in.

The Adventure phase ends when the goal of the adventure is achieved, or as much of it as is possible (such as if the information the characters were given was wrong, or the goal ends up requiring Travel to a different region), or ends when the party retreats to civilization to resupply or lick their wounds, whether they decide to give up or have another go at it (where possible).

Regardless, when the players decide they are done, a Denouement scene occurs, which showcases in brief form the characters’ return to or retreat to civilization, or to a safe base of operations — if needed, this scene can contain a couple of Challenge Encounters, but no full-scene events, and can (or even should) usually be dealt with via a quick paragraph or two describing the journey back. If needed, a roll can be made to see if anything of note or concern occurs as fallout from events during the Adventure or either existing or new situations arising at home — a bit like Entanglements from Blades in the Dark.

If the party is trapped or otherwise unable to retreat from the adventure when the players decide they are done, Denouement can consist of narrating a miraculous but confused-and-harrowing escape, leading to serious injuries and the loss of equipment and gathered treasure, and where — once the characters have clawed their way back to safety — they and all attendant NPCs swear they will Never Return — narratively, the cost of the miraculous escape.

Should even that not work from a fictional standpoint — though such a thing should be rare — then perhaps play simply returns to the characters’ homes, to their other available characters, the fate of the trapped characters left unknown. This may open the possibility of a time-sensitive rescue (or, if things have gone badly, retrieval) mission.

The Aftermath phase is the book-keeping section of play, where the adventurers gain quest XP if the adventure was successful and they achieved their goals (or as much as was possible based on circumstances — don’t hose your players out of XP if they couldn’t reach their goals for reasons beyond their control), when they pay their hirelings for services rendered and the same decide if they are going to remain with the party or resign from their service, and when the characters split any remaining loot amongst themselves. This is also when they engage in Downtime activities and Free Play scenes (both sources of possibility for potential Adventures).

Downtime actions are when characters get to spend their gold, carouse and make friends (or enemies), research projects, improve their ability scores, take up their non-adventuring trade (for a bit), head off to complete personal quests, and so on. A player can run Free Play scenes before, during, or after Downtime actions: if they don’t have ideas, the choice and results of these activities can give the player an idea for a good scene or two.

Free Play scenes can occur during other phases, but the Free Play scenes after an Adventure always occur and give everyone a chance to earn some additional XP for adding color, detail, and interest to the world through their character(s). Yes, you give the players XP for doing something interesting with their Free Play!

This is a chance for players to focus on role-playing or on expanding their character’s story by giving the other players glimpses of a character’s daily life outside of adventuring, their relationships and troubles, how they interact with others when they aren’t facing terrible monsters and life-threatening dangers, or to deal with complications that arose from the adventure or arose at home while they were away being big damn heroes, or even how they get everyone back on the road and to the adventure if there are still things to do.

They are also a good time to gain XP for a player’s other characters who were off doing other things while the current characters were adventuring, by their player telling everyone else about what that character was up to. Note that Free Play scenes never result in mortal consequences for a character, or (generally) lingering injury — save that for the Adventures!

So that’s the meta-structure of play as I’m imagining it right now. It dovetails nicely with a lot of the other processes and ideas I’ve been fiddling with for this OSR design (and obviously heavily influenced by BitD) though, as always, the final version may differ slightly, or significantly.

Unfortunately, due to the COVID situation, my usual in-person tabletop group has been unable to meet (even via video chat), so I have been unable to put this version into practice in an OSR-specific game. Though, as mentioned, I have already successfully and regularly used versions of Downtime and Travel.

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