Although Blades in the Dark does belong to the „Powered by the Apocalypse” movement, I think that it’s an example on how much certain solutions might differ from original ideas of Apocalypse World. In this blogpost, I’ve analized type of rolls in BitD: how they work and why they’re interesting. How do they work differently than Moves from direct derivatives of Apocalypse World?
Both AW and BitD states, that „the session is a conversation”. But how conversation works in BitD? How’s working?
For purpose of this article, I’ll use a term „AW Clones” term to describe games like Monster of the Week, Dungeon World, Urban Shadows 1e and so on. It’s a least controversial term I’ve invented to describe bulk of previous PbtA games, which indeed were Apocalypse World’s hacks and reskins. PbtA isn’t about engine or rules toolkit after all. I could use „PbtA” term as usual, but it could make unnecessary inquiry about „whether Blades is PbtA or not”. According to the John Harper, it is, period.
I compared BitD design bits with common „AW Clones” counterparts.
Player’s Intent and Agenda, so why Actions, not Moves?
AW Clones have this: you make a roll, when you follow the fiction that triggers a Move, which more often than not tells you to roll to +something. Player says what their character is doing.
FitD Engine delivers a couple of rolls (Action, Fortune, Downtime, etc.), but I’ll mention about all of them later. The most common and interactive resolution here is Action Roll. You make that roll, when there’s an obstacle or danger, meaningful enough to talk more about the situation (instead of saying „you did it, move along”). Plus, player says what their character is doing.
So, why „Actions”, not „Skills”? Action Roll starts, when player declares their intent. Player says both what their character is doing and what wants to achieve. Intent followed by action.
For a remainder: in AW Clones, MC doesn’t pick Moves for a player. They just lead a player and ask them some directional questions, whether it match one of couple of possible triggers. Comparing to that, Action Roll is akin to pick a certain „move” by a player themselves.
I may say, that Action Roll is like „Move + Intent” (or perhaps – „Intent + Task” – in more traditional view). That’s why a player chooses an Action from their character sheet; instead of looking for a triggers to invoke. Action in BitD says how fiction is influenced. „Wreck” Action is about an intent of destroy, damage or to spoil something in the process. „Command” is about coercing or taking someone into submission. And so on.
That’s why the game master doesn’t choose Action for a player: they don’t choose player’s intent (they don’t tell a player, what they want to achieve). A game master don’t pick an Action for a player, because they don’t decide in behalf of a player, what PC is doing. For comparison, AW Clones don’t care about intent at all. It’s not needed to move the game forward. The character’s action (player saying what they are doing) is all important.
Anatomy of „Three Outcomes”
When you compare FitD and AW Clones model of three outcomes from the roll, there’s a difference.
- AW Clones have varied options for a „middle outcome” (7-9). Sometimes it will be a compromised success or even ambivalent result. Sometimes, it’s just partial success or even „choose 1 less than at 10+”. Every Move wants to make a different experience.
- FitD (Action Roll) in another hand, always guarantees you the success (meeting intent) at „the middle” (4-5), but it always comes with an additional consequences or cost. The scale of success is exactly as intended (unless GM picks „reduced effect”), just the second part „but/however” is attached.
This creates a specific feeling: most of the scoundrel’s actions in BitD will succeed, but with lasting unintended impact. While AW Clones creates uncertainity and chaos by Moves working like „oracle tables”, FitD creates layers of complications and mess to the characters.
I can risk the opinion, that sometimes during AW Clones sessions, you may feel like you need a „6-” rolled to make a substantial turn around (as MC). I think that John Harper wanted to avoid that situation in Blades in the Dark. Thanks to that, you can have hard consequences regardless on whether a player rolled „1-3″s or not…
Position and Effect – Quantification of a roll
Both Position and Effect in FitD Engine works to set the situation in stone. How „it feels” (Position) and how large is the impact on fiction (Effect). They set the expectations for Action Roll (what may happen). They communicate, how Intent became translated into the outcome.
Each Move in AW Clone has their own specification, how fiction will be transformed or become a subject to change.
This leads to interesting things:
- AW Clones: we may know what may happen at „10+” or „7-9”, by simply reading the Move description. The uncertainity relies on implementing it into the fiction (and rolling the dice, of course).
- FitD Engine: we introduce the outcome after the roll, we only know beforehand the expected scale of success (Effect) and consequences (Position). We „measure the situation”.
Position, „Fiction in TTRPG”.
Position in Blades in the Dark measures, how risky the action is. Is there any advantage present or the character does control the situation? In other hand, is the action made in great hurry, as a desperate measure? Some FitD games have their own names for Positions (sometimes they’re four, not three); I’ll stick to BitD namings („Controlled”, „Risky”, „Desperate”).
AW Clones tend to internalize such question, deeply into the Move trigger and description. The „position” of what character is doing, in principle should correspond to the fiction, so does following triggered Move(s). Missing details are either described in advance, or left to the roll itself. For instance, if during Apocalypse World session you get direct shot from a missile grenade, you should take that 4-harm no matter what. So, the consequences after triggering a Move (and rolling dice) are exactly as the fiction suggests, especially if someone rolled „6-„…
Position in FitD engine regulates, how bad consequences are. This adds missing details. However, if you announced „Controlled” Position, you can’t further describe the consequences like „you get hit by a missile grenade, get enormous harm”. It wouldn’t be a „Controlled” Position in first place: direct danger of getting hit and almost instantaneously dead. Also, just getting 1-harm (as BitD suggests for „Controlled”) by a missile grenade’s direct hit would sound like fiction overstretch to say the least. In other hand, a game master would need to describe a different consequence…
Let’s be clear: being point-blank threatened by a grenade launcher doesn’t sound as „Controlled” Position at all…
Effect, „Leverage in TTRPG”
At least in my opinion, Effect in FitD engine works like „leverage” term:
„Leverage” is about checking, whether the fictional character is capable of making a task and achieveing what they want. How’s capable of doing something. Don’t having „leverage” means either the character don’t have means of changing a situation or something stands on a way for it.
AW Clones tend to resolve „leverage” issue with this. If MC thinks that character is capable of making what they are doing, they are doing it and possibly some Move has been triggered in the process. If there isn’t the leverage for that, MC tells what’s standing across and why, and asks again, what player is doing (possibly to achieve the leverage).
Games like BitD works a bit different. „Standard” Effect means that a character is fully capable of achieveing their intent („has leverage”); a game master has first say for it. If there isn’t a leverage, a game master can declare:
- „Limited” Effect (something reduces/hinders the impact of an action, or only allows for a partial result)
- „Zero” Effect (a character’s leverage has been compromised by something).
- It’s important, that game master can also tell you something like „you cannot fool someone with Wreck approach, even if you use that strange headwear machine. Sway action sounds more reasonable, you can make Linked Roll with Wreck, if you insist on support of your machine…”
FitD engine allows to judge and measure the leverage of a character, according to the fiction (and other factors, like Tier equipment quality, for example).
However, player still can do something, if the announced Effect isn’t „Standard”:
- Changing approach (by changing chosen Action, so does it adjust the intent, and Position & Effect should follow it too).
- They can still roll with „Zero” Effect, because why not? (perhaps to count for Critical Result, which raises Effect by one).
- They can spend resources to raise Effect from „Zero” before the roll.
In other means, the game asks a player, what they want to do in goal to overcome initial issues with leverage.
Side topic: while many AW Clones don’t have „fourth, critical option” in every Move (and if so, it’s unlockable thing, not available right in the beginning), FitD engine provides framework for that.
Summary of such a long section:
I could say, that AW Clones (and PbtA movement in essence) wants to create and then celebrate the fiction. FitD engine regulates the fiction instead; it creates a solution to improve communication at the table.
Stress Points, the Investment
By default, AW Clones don’t demand expendable resources like „stress” or so on to work. If they have resources like that, either it had been introduced as an exception (working both as stat and resource, like +Barter or +Stock) or as an extension of certain Move („hold X for something”). Of course we can find exceptions like in Blightburg (Grit Points, metacurrency inspired by Burning Wheel’s „Artha”) or Ironsworn (Momentum, it’s value and burning mechanics).
In FitD engine, we „wear up the character”. By using Stress resource, the player asks themselves how much they are willing to „wear up” their character. Does it lead to „Trauma” point (or similar thing)? We use such currency for various activities, in goal to overcome the obstacle at hand, help to another, etc.
Not every FitD game „wears up” the player character. For instance, in Wicked Ones, hitting the limit of Stress leads to a PC going feral (showing the monstrous nature of a PC, for awhile).
I want to point out one thing. AW Clones tend to conserve the mechanical means of rolling for result. Like „if you have -1 to some stat, you’ll always roll with -1, unless you obtained some aid/interference or +1 forward from previous move”. However, FitD engine gives empowerment tools – like Stress or Devil’s Bargain (BitD) – to not just overcome, but actually to change the situation at hand.
This creates a different behaviour at the tables. Both are valid.
Withstanding the consequences – Resistance Rolls
Resistance Roll is a procedure to prevent your character from negative consequences of their action, just after making an Action Roll. This goes with exchange for random and substantial cost in Stress.
This creates an additional control about the situation in hands of a player. This doesn’t negate the failure of an Intent, but it’s a last word, which can be said to show, how much sturdy (or evasive) the player character is. It also can be used to prevent an unwanted consequence/cost of „4-5″…
Such feature doesn’t exist in AW Clones (at least in most of them, you can point me wrong). Those type of games celebrate the fiction, so does force the player to celebrate the failure and the consequences. Some „AW Clones” like Dungeon World or Monster of the Week even rewards a player for rolling „6-” result by giving +1xp. This sounds straight like an opposite direction than Resistance Roll!
In another hand, „6-” in AW Clone not always needs to be translated as big consequence to the character, huge problem or devastating Harm. If a certain Move doesn’t tell you what to do for „6-„, it’s an opportunity for MC to make their „Hard Move” (change of a situation, which cannot be further dismissed). It doesn’t need to be as hard as 3-Harm/+3 to Danger Clock/3 Heat, like for „Desperate” Action Roll in Blades in the Dark…
Variety of Rolls in FitD
By default, AW Clones doesn’t make special categories about, how differently the game behaves. Existing categories works mostly for organization and niche-protection, like „Basic Moves”, „Playbook Moves”, „Advanced Moves” and so on.
All of those Moves share similarities in structure (as intended, by Vincent & Meguey Baker).
FitD engine delivers a framework for different type of rolls, as each of them behaves differently in principle:
- Action Roll (intent towards dangerous or problematic course of action).
- Fortune Roll (variety of applications, including „rolls of luck”, making action with no danger/obstacle but with uncertainity of degree of success, gathering informations, NPC faction’s action, etc.)
- Downtime Roll (efficiency of making actions during Downtime Phase, in a cycle between Scores/”high-intensity” phases).
- Resistance Roll (degree of an alternate cost, sometimes it checks whether the resistence was complete or partial).
In games like BitD, we don’t roll just for meeting the procedure of a triggered Move. We check things, we’re interested in degree of a success (or a progress). Each type of a roll has their own criteria for „6/4-5/1-3” oracle-like resolution. Those mechanics works for other things than just celebrating the ficiton (outcome). I can say, that FitD engine brought back eclectic couple of features, by adding some „non-AW” elements from games originally not sharing any of „PbtA movement.values”.
Not to mention, that at least in Blades in the Dark, a game master can roll some dice. Just trivia, but nevertheless affects, how that one person experiences the game…
There are some significant discrepancies between „AW Clones” approach derived from The Original From 2010 and Blades in the Dark.
Action Roll procedure sets a different kind of a dialogue between a player and a game master. Thanks to declaring Intent and then choosing „Action”, the player becomes an co-author of a situation on equal terms as game master. It’s not an assymetric conversation as before in AW Clones (MC tells the situation and asks a player, player responds, MC asks if the trigger happened, and move on).
Conversation in AW Clones is like playing ball to the wall. Both sides pushes back their responses, but they’re not negotiating. The player „triggers the game”, but MC recognizes the trigger and the final result is irrevocable.
While in FitD engine, the conversation is symmetric. Both sides negotiates and can use their narrative rights on equal terms. A game master doesn’t have any authority left, just an opinion. Resistance Rolls are the extenstion of the conversation, after the Action Roll.
Flashbacks are also a conversation, which works like two sides negotiating about the cost in Stress and the scale and/or procedure chosen to find out, how it plays out.
Both „engines” (again, PbtA is not an engine) works slightly different, in the end:
- AW Clones tends to be streamlined, be non-disruptive from fiction as possible. Picked Move emerges from the fiction and quickly dives deep down again, back to the fiction. The crunch („order of operations”) is as small as is needed. It’s like minimalism in TTRPG.
- FitD engine invites a player to engage with mechanics and crunch. Various elements of an Action Roll compels a player to get interested on how their decisions affects the situation (and the fiction, in result). It’s about utilizing the depth of rules and embracing it.
Also, FitD engine tends to intensify further a situation in „4-5” middle outcome. More Action Rolls during the Score, more consequences and cost will be taken. And this leads to some kind of „wear out” or „grind” of player character. Sooner or later, the players will encounter the moment, where they would like to end the Score (or other mission) and go back to safety. This situation doesn’t emerge in AW Clones as intended: if ever emerges, it’s ephemeral and accidental.
FitD engine is designed to play in cycle of a game, in mind. AW Clones tends to work differently: how much domino effect you can accidentaly encounter, while celebrating the fiction.
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