Positions, Puzzle Boxes, Adversaries and More

Friday, June 26th, 2020

One of my BitD groups recently had a discussion about play styles due to some questions involving how one goes about negotiating for Position and Effect. One of the players, frustrated by the system, wanted to know what the normal difficulty of an action should be. The thing is, in BitD, there’s no real answer to that question.

Because “how difficult” and “how dangerous” all depends on the fictional position at that moment. There’s no “he has an AC of 15 and you have a +4 to hit” as a common point of reference, so if you’re “standing in an open field, shooting at someone”, it all depends. The closest the book comes to a guideline here is just “if you can’t decide, you can just pick the default of Risky Standard.” Which isn’t really an answer to the question: that’s just how difficult and dangerous you can set something to be, but not how difficult and dangerous it necessarily is “normally” because there is no baseline “standard” of the danger or difficulty of an action.

The real answer to the question is that the Position and Effect revolves around the question of why you are standing in a field shooting at somebody? This is what determines their “AC” is and whether or not you have a “bonus to hit.” And those values aren’t going to be the same every time for every individual, even if the action and individuals are the same: AC and to-hit aren’t just different for every creature, AC and to-hit are different for every situation.

Is their back to you? Are you firing at each other? Is there a storm blowing dust into your eyes? Are you trying to make this shot quickly, or are you lining it up regardless of the personal consequences? Are they armored? Are they charging at you with a pike? Are you trying to kill them or just wound them? Were you prepared for this, or did you have to quickly load your musket? Who are you shooting at? Do you hate them? Do you love them? Etc.

That kind of system design can be difficult to get your head around. It’s a very different style of gaming. It’s not about charts with concrete, absolute modifiers. It’s also a style of gaming I really love.

Imagine you gather a bunch of friends to tell a story to one another until you decide there’s some kind of trouble that should be resolved with a die roll, where what you roll depends on why you’re rolling and what’s happening around you.

Which is the exact kind of gaming I wrote At the Dawn for, where the Narrator is a facilitator rather than a story-teller, where the players tell one another a story until someone jumps in to say “no you don’t, because…”, and where the obstacles faced are only as dangerous or problematic as it matters to the narrative, and what seems the most interesting and fun right then — not based on any inherent quality of the obstacle itself.

As an example, in At the Dawn, the question of if a dragon is a powerful foe, or not much of a problem at all, isn’t dependent on the fact is is a dragon, or what the dragon is doing, but on the hero’s story. On the fiction surrounding the encounter.

Is this the climactic showdown with the ancient beast that everything has been leading up to? Or is this a scene where the hero is racing through the village, trying to get to the castle, and they stumble into the dragon’s path? Same dragon. Same strength. Same claws. Same terrifying visage. Same everything. But how dangerous it is and how successful you are is based on why the action takes place.

Facing down the powerful attacks of a terrifying dragon might only warrant a single Exchange against a “weak foe”, instead of a full six Exchanges for a “mighty foe.” There are no concrete guidelines on what to roll when beyond how important that scene seems to be to the character’s overall story. “It’s a dragon” has no bearing on the difficulty or danger.

I realize that style of game is not for everyone. And that’s ok. It’s a different kind of game for gamers who want something a different experience.

My experience with this is that the frustrating part of that style of play for some folks is the “you’ll know it when you see it” nature of the determination, or even the time it might take to resolve the set-up for the roll itself as the players discuss what it should be. Some players just want to roll the dice.

Let’s use an exchange from Band of Blades of setting the Position and Effect for an encounter so we can see how that looks, and to establish one way in which the system encourages narrative ownership take place:

Player: “We’re going to ambush the knights with musket fire from on top of the cliff. That’s got to be a Controled Position.”
GM: “Sounds right. But they’re armored, so it’s Limited Effect.”
Player: “What if the Soldier uses his grenade and we drop huge rocks on them?”
GM: “OK. I think that’s Controled Standard.”
Player: “If we Trade for Effect…um, we put the Heavy in the canyon to jump them while they’re recovering from the ambush? Can we make it Risky Great to take down three of the knights?”
GM: “Yep, but the Heavy is going to take Level 2 Harm if things don’t go as planned.”
Player: “OK, let’s not do that.”
GM: “Alright, Controled Standard. If you fail, they notice you before you can spring the trap.”
Player: “Good with me. Let’s do this!”

To be clear, not every P/E gets set that way: sometimes everyone just agrees on whatever is set because it’s “obvious” that’s what it should be, or just goes along with the initial call, or the group is in the middle of the action and there isn’t anything they can think of that would shift their Position or Effect much. When is that? “You know it when you see it.”

BitD games include multiple ways to shift the P/E in any circumstance which must be supported in the fiction, not merely declared as a mechanical choice: “OK, Bob, you want to trade Position for Effect. What does that look like?”

So the fun in BitD games lies in large part in crafting the surrounding fiction, which is accomplished in large part by negotiating P/E to establish player-ownership of the narrative. It’s why half the tools at the players’ disposal affect P/E specifically, from Setup actions to Flashbacks to Pushing for Effect, but not as automatic things — instead through a described alteration of the narrative situation. They are not actions taken without context, such as are “I roll to hit.” or “I cast fireball.”

In fact, one thing about the BitD game Band of Blades is if you don’t negotiate the P/E, in the long-run you’re not only going to be screwed in terms of making it to the endgame at Skydagger, or with enough of a Legion left to matter, but in terms of having a less enjoyable time. If this kind of gaming isn’t your thing, you still might have sort-of fun, but you’re also going to run into problems, and the system isn’t going to shine, because it isn’t really built around “DM-says-what, players-react” style gaming.

That narrative ownership via crafting the fiction is the same with rules that provide bonus dice. It’s not just a Push, it’s a Push because of a thing your character is doing or a thing that’s happening: you’re sweating balls because this is incredibly difficult, you’re charging into battle with a roar, you’re making an improbable leap to shield a friend, etc. It can be as simple as that, it doesn’t have to be complex. Just: You’re Pushing yourself. Say how.

It’s a story.

This is unlike D&D or similar games, where what you do is just color slapped over the mechanics to provide a visualization of what is happening.

No, here the mechanics are slapped over the visualization.

The existing mechanics, the examples in the book, and by both the Rules of Good GMing and the Bad Habits of GMing make clear that the concrete rules are just examples of the entire underlying structure of BitD: that fiction informs the mechanics, the mechanics are not separate from the fiction. That what you say and what you do affect your chances. That the fiction really matters.

“You get a bonus die because that sounds reasonable.”
“That’s a better Position because that sounds like it doesn’t endanger you as much.”
“That’s a worse Effect because that seems like it wouldn’t do much.”
“I like that idea too much for it not to matter.”

In the Sorcerer RPG (one of the earliest Narrative-style games) one important concept many long-time gamers found difficult to internalize and to put into practice was the idea that the GM needed to give out bonus dice if something someone said or did excited someone else at the table.

At that time, adversarial D&D ideals still reigned in the consciousness of play — the extant paradigm of play was GM versus the players; or more softly: the GM created a metaphorical puzzle-box to challenge the players, and the players had to fight/think/roll their way out of that box.

The idea of GM as fan and advocate for the players instead, of helping them was relatively new. In fact, for most of gaming’s history to that point, the GM interfering to help the players was seen as “fudging” — ie: cheating — and thus “wrong”. The GM was making it “too easy” on the players, they were “protecting them from failure”, they were “breaking the rules”, etc.

So giving players a bonus die because they said something cool?
What did that look like?
What did that mean?
When were you supposed to do that?

It turns out the answers were pretty simple: Did it sound awesome? Did you as GM (or anyone else at the table) like the idea? Did the player role-play even a little? Fucking give it to them. Let the bonus dice flow like water.

But what if they do it every time?!
What if they get a bonus die every time?!

GOOD. Give it to them every time.

Adversarial D&D-style DMs are stingy with bonuses and benefits and help because, well, that’s D&D: it’s a tactical exercise slathered with a role-playing frosting, so handing out bonus dice would feel “weird”, it was letting the players off too easy if the GM did so — it was protecting players from the consequences, which is a cardinal sin in tactical-style gaming.

But this style does not play well with rules built for player-advocate GMing and the GM being a fan of the players.

When you’re a fan of and advocate for the players, you let go of being on the side of the obstacles and join the side of the players. You are one of them instead. Which suddenly makes handing out those bonus dice in Sorcerer make a lot more sense.

You want the players to get that bonus die, you’re looking for a reason to give it to them, you’re excited to give it to them! Those bonus dice are burning a hole in your pocket and you’re a kid in a candy shop full of player ideas.

BitD arises from this gaming tradition, with the caveat that the consequences of failure are grim. The difference is the GM is not pushing for those consequences, you’re not trying to make it more likely they happen, you don’t want to see them happen — in fact, you’re rooting for the players. The grim consequences happen if they happen, as established before the roll.

And that’s the bit not everyone gets: you telegraph the grim consequences before the roll, so you don’t need to show them happening. You don’t need to stun and surprise the players to show how terrible everything is. Everyone knows the stakes ahead of time — everyone’s aware, and managing to find a way to avoid them makes success that much sweeter; failing despite their best efforts makes the failure that much more poignant.

BitD games are a story, not a puzzle-box.

If you play it like a puzzle-box, you will be disappointed.

If your GM is in adversary-mode, you will be disappointed.

If everyone is stat-blocks and clocks, you will be disappointed.

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