Winning! An alternative to “most points”

It’s been a while, Internet. Life has been hectic, and playing few games meant I thought about design less. But now that life is calming down some, and that I’m gaming a lot…

So to get back into writing, I’ve decided to dig into my notebook and look at the SISIGIP section (Stuff I’d Steal In Games I Play): every time I play a new game, I write down one small mechanism that inspires me. It’s kind of like Jamey Stegmaier’s “My Favourite Mechanism in…” series, but I’m focusing more on small pieces rather than the main selling point, and thinking more about where it could fit in a game, or how it could be used differently.

Today, I’m starting the SISIGIP series by talking about Winning conditions: after a game is over, how do you know who won it? As a Euro gamer, I play a lot of Most-VPs-Wins games, but I’m starting to sway more and more towards games which avoid the end game accounting associated with those.

There are a lot of different ways to define victory conditions, but a lot of better writers have tackled those questions before: my first draft of this article was basically repeating Alex Harkey’s Games Precipice article about “Most, First, Last” (link). To recap, the article presents three types of victory conditions: Most (most point-based games), First (race games, but also mission-based), and Last (survival games). More interestingly, they then talk about games with multiple victory conditions, like how in King of Tokyo, you can either be the first to 20 points, or the last monster standing, or in 7 Wonders Duel, which is a most VP game, except for two instant-win conditions if you can manage to complete them (which are, in a way, a mix of first and last, but the line is blurry in a 2-player game).

But in all of these cases, the examples were about multiple, unrelated winning conditions, divided by OR: get to 20 points OR be the last standing; have 5 Sciences, OR reach your opponent’s city, OR have the most points.

Spirit Island‘s Fear System

When I played Spirit Island recently, the Fear system jumped out to me as such a rich victory condition. If you don’t know the game, it is a coop game where you play as Spirits defending an island against colonists laying claim over your land. If you break it down to a very deep, core level, it follows the Pandemic-frame: you must control the unending threat of colonists (playing the role of disease cubes) while making progress towards your goal by accumulating Fear (playing the role of cures). However, how those two aspects translate to the winning condition is very different.

In Pandemic, winning is straightforward: “Find 4 Cures before you lose”. The cubes affect the losing, but not the winning.

In Spirit Island, the winning condition starts as “Get rid of all Colonists”. Every time you get 4 Fear, you gain a small bonus event card; after the third (therefore, after 12 Fear), the win condition becomes one step easier. First, it allows you to ignore the least powerful type of Colonists, and becomes “Get rid of all Towns and Cities”, and then after another 12 Fear, “Get rid of all Cities”. Then, if you gain another 12 Fear, you just immediately win, regardless of board state, just like with 4 Cures in Pandemic.

It would be like if Pandemic‘s winning condition started off as “Win if there are no disease cube”, and after the first Cure, became “Win if there are no cities with 2 or 3 cubes”, then “Win if there are no cities with 3 cubes” after the second, and then “Win if there is no more than one city with 3 cubes”. Then, on the fourth Cure, you win, like in the current game.

What it does well

In Pandemic, you either play defensively by taking cubes away, or offensively by working towards the cures. Mostly, you try to play as offensively as you can, switching to defense when it’s required, because you’re still working against a ticking clock. The puzzle of the game comes in making those switches as seamless as possible: “if I go there to cure cubes, I can also give you this card”. If you play too defensively, you lose: you must take action.

In Spirit Island, you can technically win by killing all Colonists and staying on the first victory condition, or you can win without killing a Colonist, by moving them around or defending against their effects, and by producing 36 Fear before you lose. In reality, most games will be a mix of the two, but it makes “playing defensively” viable.

What makes the Fear System work so well, too, is how different the two axes feel. Gaining Fear is often a thing of manipulation, with a lot of fear-generating effects having “if” or “for each” clauses, and you must still find a way to survive the Colonists’ attacks. On the other hand, Fear gained is never lost. Getting rid of Colonists, however, is a much more direct thing, requiring both frontal assaults by the Spirits and by the island’s natives, the Dahan. They are their own form of defense, but any progress is temporary: more Colonists will come next turn, and the one after. When it comes to the winning condition, Fear is a one-way track, but Colonists are a snapshot: you can rid the board of all Towns and Settlers for a push to victory, but if you were to keep on playing, more would come.

By comparison, Rajas of the Ganges is a popular competitive game with a similar system: there are score tracks, one tracking your money, and one your Fame, and they go in opposite directions. If your markers ever reach one another, you win. In theory, it is a very similar system to Spirit Island’s: you could say that gaining money lowers your victory threshold, or vice versa. However, gaining Fame and gaining Money feel very similar, despite being gained from different systems. If the game had been created with only one point-type, and a single-threshold, the gameplay would not have changed much, I think.

How would I use it?

The Fear system has inspired two mechanisms for me, one for my Coop game SuPR, and one for a competitive game that’s still just scribbles in my notebook.

The first thing that came to mind is “can we play with the number of Fear needed to advance?” That could add one more dimension to play with and link abilities to, but also a very interesting timing element: Fear production is more effective when the threshold is low, so you must strike when the iron is hot!

In SuPR, players are a PR firm working for a Superhero, trying to get them to be liked by the general public. Where in Spirit Island you gain Fear and defeat Colonists, in SuPR you gain Reputation and defeat Supervillains. To me, the Fear mechanism was an obvious move, and a mechanism I wanted to work with. Interestingly, playing with the threshold for advancement had a great mechanical implication: the more dire the situation was, the more heroic your actions were! Mechanically, every neighbourhood’s Hope represented both its “health points”, and how much Heroism you needed to gain Reputation. This added an interesting layer of strategy: how far will you let things slip before you go in to save the day? It added a cynical aspect to the theme, too, which I loved to play with.

In the competitive space, I like games without point systems, which feel a lot more dramatic than the accounting session at the end of my favourite games. Games where you can just reach a certain situation, and WIN. However, more often than not, when I try to design those, they end up with a Munchkin effect: it’s not about being able to Win, but about being able to Win WHEN NO ONE CAN BLOCK YOU, which I think only works in a 2-player game.

However, my scribble concept went to a game about politicians and lobbyists. Every player is a politician, with some key lobbies supporting them. You start the game with, say, 6 cards dictating a certain board state: one says that the education budget must be over 10, another that the tax rate must be under 5. But, of course, both are related, and lowering the tax rate also lowers the education budget. And one of your opponent is pushing for the budget to go to infrastructure. If, at any point during the game, all 10 of your cards are completed, like the victory condition in Spirit Island, you win. Also, throughout the game, certain events and actions lead to Popularity Boosts. When you gain a Popularity Boost, you get to discard one of your Objective cards: now, you only need 5 objectives to be true, then 4, then 3. Like in Spirit Island, you could win through sheer Popularity, but odds are it will be a mix of the two.

Quickly, you’ll get an idea of what other players are pushing, and who is pushing against you. However, the game is not about waiting for others to be out of sticks to put in your wheels, but to, over time, lower your threshold so that you can hit at the right time.

Conclusion

I think there’s a lot that can be done to make the process of determining a winner more dynamic, without losing the granularity and feeling of progress of victory points. Spirit Island’s Fear system is only one of them. What other games explore that space in dramatic, interesting ways? Have you explored that in your own designs?

WHEN to add variability to your design

Last week, I talked about going from idea to prototype. Today, I want to talk about one of the pitfalls many of us fall into when prototyping.

I’m a huge proponent of variable setups, missions, objectives, factions, and characters. I feel like it’s the one thing all of my games will have in common: “20 different powers, only use 3 each game!”

But variability should be the last step when designing your game. To start, you need to make sure your game structure is solid; then, when your game is strong enough to handle it, you can start adding variables to it.

Believe me, I know all about the temptation of adding that variability early. My first game idea was a game about breeding monsters: I had probably 30 monster cards, and I wanted to have a card for a unique offspring for each of those pairs. And, of course, I wanted to have multiple of each, so you never quite knew, when mixing a dragon and a unicorn, which kind of dragicorn you’d be getting!

Yeah, it was the weirdest idea.

But it never saw the light of day. I worked on it for months, never got close to having it ready for a playtest, and I didn’t want to playtest it without finishing it. I was figuring stuff out, making dozens of cards, making diagrams; I felt like I was making progress. In a way, I was, but in a much truer way… I really wasn’t.

Why is adding variability too soon a bad idea?

There are 3 main reasons why it’s a bad idea to start with your game’s content, rather than its structure.

First, any change in the game’s structure will require changes in the elements built upon that structure. Imagine changing the structure of a game like Dominion. After a few playtests, you decide to remove the limit of actions per turn. Without even entering into the issue of game balance, how many cards suddenly don’t even make sense with the new ruleset? All of the Village cards, or the “cantrip” cards that give +1 Card and +1 Action ⁠— these cards were specifically designed  to overcome that limit, and would no longer have a real purpose.

Picture by iSlaytheDragon

The second reason is that creating content is a time-consuming task which does not really have an end state. Creating content is fun, it’s easy, and it feels like progress, but too much can be a trap. Even if all of your ideas would make it into the final product, you will always have more ideas for new cards, new tiles, new characters, new missions. With a Smile & a Gun is being printed right now, and I still come up with a Shadow card idea every week. If you wait until all of your ideas are in the game before you start testing, you will simply never start testing; each idea you write down will give you another one, and then another.

Finally, content becomes much easier to create after you’ve played the game a few times: you have a better feel for what would be interesting, you can poll your testers for their opinions, and you probably have a pile of mechanisms which did not fit… but maybe could become a card!

But don’t I need content?

Of course! I’m not saying “playtest your card game with blank pieces of cardboard”. Although… if you have a specific mechanism for, say, acquiring or discarding cards, it’s always a good idea to take a standard deck of cards, and try it out.

You can’t playtest your deckbuilder without actually having any cards. Here is a rule of thumb: determine the minimum amount of different elements you need to have to be able to play a single game. If you were making your own version of Dominion, you wouldn’t need to have 25 different action cards designed before you start playtesting; every game only uses 10.

Once you’ve identified that minimum number, make half of it.

No, I’m not kidding. For a first test, you want to have as few variables as you can. If during your test, the game doesn’t click for some reason, you need to be able to identify what causes those issues: it might be the structure itself, or it might be one of the cards that’s throwing the entire game off kilter. Worse yet, it could be an interaction between two cards. Having 5 cards instead of 10 means that not only do you reduce the number of variables which could be affecting the game structure, you’re also reducing the number of possible card interactions from 100 combinations to 25. Sure, 5 is too few for a full game experience, but you’re not aiming for a full game: you are testing whether or not your core idea is fun.

Maybe you can’t actually divide the number by two, but you can just cut down on how different you make these elements. Working on SuPR, a cooperative dice drafting game, I wanted players to roll a pool of dice and determine who would use what. Therefore, I needed players to have different abilities, or else the central conceit would break down. However, for the first playtest, I just changed which action was paired with which: it was very minor asymmetry, and a lot less than what I needed to make the dice selection shine, but at least it made me able to work on the bigger picture.

But I like making content!

Creating content for your game is not only important, it is also fun. It is perfectly okay for you to indulge yourself and create some of that content early. My goal with this article is not to take away your candy, but to make sure you understand that (1) you should not wait for the content to go ahead and playtest; and (2) all the early content you create is unlikely to make it through the game’s development unscathed. 

How early do you usually add this variability to your designs? Have you gotten caught in this pit before? If so, how did you get out of it?

From Idea to First Playtest

The first game I designed was actually a co-design, and Louis onboarded me after a few playtests of his own. For a while, I was an active game designer without any idea how to start a design: I had gotten in right after that part. I’d go around and ask established designers at conventions, or on panels and Q&As: Every time, the answer would be something along the lines of “you just do it”, which is… well, not that useful.

I’ve seen a few people around the Twitterverse asking these questions recently. Remembering my own questions from back then, here is MY method for going from an idea to a first prototype.

Disclaimer: This is a method that works for me. If you have a different method, awesome! If this one doesn’t work for you, I’m sorry! This is just meant as an example: you can try it out and see what sticks.

Step 1: Define your core

Whether I’m inspired by a mechanism, a theme, an experience, my first step is always to define what I want the game to be. This takes the form of a pitch, a short, 2 or 3 line paragraph about what I want the game to be. I want it to be snappy and dramatic to begin with (it will get longer as the concept solidifies) because (a) it’s easier to grab attention that way, and (b) it helps me identify what is the core I’m aiming for, and what is just brainstorming around that idea.

Usually, I’ll try and get some feedback on this pitch. I’ll talk about it with friends, other designers, or just in general on social media. This is useful both to gauge interest, but also to help me smooth out any rough edges: in a way, I’m playtesting the pitch!

Step 2: Deconstruct that core

Once I’ve identified this core, I need to figure out how the game will fulfill that promise. Where marketers often try to represent their target audience with an imaginary character, I try to represent my central idea with a target moment that represents the experience I want the game to offer.

From then, I identify what building blocks I need to make that work.

A few examples:

  • For Off the Record, the core was the growing-pile mechanism, exemplified by that decision between a huge, 6-card pile, or that one card you really need. I needed a reason for you to need a specific card, but a way for any card to be useful for you, which led me to turning in Poker hands for points.
  • For Cybertopia, the juice was that free-flowing roster of workers, where you’d get a different group of options every time you’d gather. That means I needed workers which were different enough for that to matter, and a way for them to be grouped in the actions where they were sent. I also needed those “groups” to be unrelated to the workers’ unique traits, so that they wouldn’t all be piled up in the same groups: instead of workers, we started looking at them as multi-use cards, which made a lot more sense design-wise.
  • For SuPR, the pitch is a large thematic thing, but the core is “you have to save the town, but the more dire the situation, the better it looks”. I knew that the central mechanism needed that risk-reward, where you were not completely able to control your actions, nor perfectly plan them ahead of time, or else, there would be no luck for you to push! This made dice drafting feel like such a good idea!
    Then, coop dice drafting suggested the idea of a “love draft”: instead of “what can’t I leave my opponent?”, I loved the idea of “OH! I NEED THAT DICE! PLEASE LEAVE IT FOR ME!”, which meant, like with Off the Record, I needed a way to have something that was just *perfect* for a player, but for every player to be able to use it, leading me to the idea of a dice you used for both the number and colour.
  • For my untitled coop roll-and-write, I wanted to merge that moment at the end of a game of Pandemic or Spirit Island, where you look at the map and go “this is what’s left of the world”, and the permanence of a roll-and-write sheet. Because of that, the gameplay must be centered around a map, which players are building up while the game is doing its best to tear it down.

Step 3: Good artists borrow…

Even with that central idea fleshed out some, you’re still far away from a playable prototype. This is where I follow the famous saying, and outright steal another game’s frame.

Sometimes my inspiration starts from a game in particular: as I mentioned previously, the coop roll-and-write idea came up right after a game of Troyes Dice, and the first prototype was, more or less, a cooperative version of it.

If not, I try to find a game that would fit my building blocks: with SuPR, I started from Pandemic: the Cure, another coop dice game, and added the “scoring” system I wanted; with Cartographia, we started with Blue Moon City, but with players getting bonuses when others would map the same space as they previously did; Cybertopia started from Imhotep, with the worker cards replacing the boats; With a Smile & a Gun started out as Cat Lady, with the dice-drafting rondel to go with it.

I then make my first prototype as close to that game as I can. But…

Step 4: Start with the second prototype

“Your second try is always better than your first.”
“So how do I start with my second one?”

My first prototype never actually touches the table.

The simple act of building a prototype, to me, is a first round of testing: I ask myself how things will interact, I write cards and get cool ideas, I find a cooler way to present a decision, I imagine myself playing a round and cursing my friends out.

You can argue it’s semantics (and you’d be right), but it highlights one of the biggest problems I have with creative endeavours: I can’t start creative without knowing what I’m making, but I need to start making it to figure out what I’ll be making. Therefore, I have to trick myself, and start making something I know I won’t ever be using, just to get the gears in motion.

Sometimes this “first prototype” is writing a bullet-point rulebook, sometimes it’s taking pieces from the seed game and moving them around, sometimes it’s opening up PowerPoint and making cards. The zeitgeist says “get it to the table ASAP”, but you can use a metaphorical table: in a way, a spreadsheet is a table, right?

Step 5: Schedule a playtest

If you are gifted with the ability to solo playtest your game, go ahead and do that.

Otherwise, if you’ve read last week’s post, you know that the best way to finish a prototype is to schedule a playtest and give yourself a deadline.

Oh, it’s not finished? Of course it isn’t: that’s WHY you playtest.

You can keep on changing and tweaking and editing and adding, but a 30-minute playtest will help your design more than another 30 hours of modifying your prototype.

I just beat designer’s block

I ran my first Kickstarter campaign in July to publish Subsurface’s first release, With a Smile & a Gun. It’s been an extremely rewarding experience, but it’s also been draining, especially during a worldwide pandemic. Since then, between said pandemic, the lack of a regular game night, and the remaining amount of work related to producing and shipping a game, I have not worked on any of my designs. Actually, I’ve only run two non-WaS&aG playtests in the last 12 months.

Truth is, inertia is a pretty major hurdle to jump. After focusing on the business side of games, I’ve lost my design momentum, and in these circumstances, it’s been really hard to get back.

I’m sure I’m not alone.

Before I dig into how I got back into it, let me say that it’s okay if you can’t get yourself to work on your projects. If it’s doing more harm than good, don’t. Don’t beat yourself up: these are difficult times. It’s okay if you’re not being productive. You’re not less than because you’re struggling.

However, if you feel like a creative endeavour would improve your quality of life, but you’re not sure how to get back on the horse, then here’s what’s worked for me:

Play some games

When I was younger, I’d read a lot of YA books, and I’d keep on wanting to write my own books. Then I read webcomics, and tried to learn to draw. Then it was movies, and standup comedy, and short stories.

For me, consuming any form of art makes me want to produce my own. I’ve been told it was hubris, thinking that I could make better versions of these things —and to a certain extent, it is–, but to me, it’s less a question of “better” than “more to *my* tastes”.

It stands to reason that this dry spell of design coincides with an equivalent dry spell of playing. No game night means that, slowly but surely, gaming is less common. Sure, we used to play over BoardGameArena and Tabletopia, but it sort of fizzled out over time.

Then I got back into it. I started my weekly online game of Arkham Horror LCG again; then a friend bought roll-and-writes and offered to play them over Zoom; then I started playing games with my daughter after she comes back from school.

Inertia is a thing, but so is momentum. A little push puts stuff in motion. After a game of AHLCG, all I can think about is levelling my deck, which makes me think about how cool this card combo could be, and oh, I haven’t played Underwater Cities in forever…

Be it games over Zoom or BGA, with friends or strangers, or even in person with your partner or roommate or kid, or even solo or on an app: starting to enjoy the hobby again might give you the spark.

Get excited!

That friend who bought all of those roll-and-write games? He said “you know, if you were working on a roll-and-write, we could have a weekly playtest night!”

After every new game we’d play, we’d talk about the design, and eventually, we played both Aeon’s End and Troyes Dice back-to-back. “Wouldn’t the Troyes system be a great skeleton for a coop roll-and-write?”, he asked, and, well, we talked about it for an hour and a half.

I find that while playing games brings those sparks, talking about those sparks with others is the kindling that starts the fire. It’s what turns idle ruminating into forward progress, and gets that rolling stone moss-free.

Procrastinate about something else

Even with a good idea that excited me, making that first prototype is such a big hill: without super-momentum, you roll back down all Sisyphus-like.

LPT: If you just cannot seem to get Sisyphus to offer his quest to buy his  freedom -- make sure you actually talked to Bouldy. : HadesTheGame

Then, November arrived, and for the first time in forever, I thought about NaNoWriMo in late October: finally, I could try this writing challenge, use social media for added accountability, and…

Well, having this other, much more daunting task made making the prototype look like the easy way out: isn’t that interesting?

I’m not sure you can reproduce this feeling, but when I had to write 1700 words of a novel, for which I only had a two-line description to go from, I managed to trick my brain into making that prototype and thinking it was procrastination.

Again, this is what worked for me! Please don’t use this blog post as an excuse to not finish a work assignment or a school project!

Schedule a playtest

Here’s a veteran tip:
The best time to prepare a prototype is an hour before the playtest starts.

If you wait for your prototype to be ready before you set a date, it will never happen. If you schedule other people, magically, your prototype will be ready.

livememe.com - 60% Of The Time, It Works Every Time

Momentum might be a thing, but a deadline is another.

The clarity of “up to”

I’m an ardent supporter of clarity in games, to allow players to focus less on what they can do, and more on what they want to do. A big part of this is to only add rules when they are necessary, to keep the structure as light as possible.

This week, playing Arkham Horror LCG, I found one rule I think you should always add: the “up to”. Compare these two cards:

Pictures from ArkhamDB.com

These two cards are very different, but both share the “Gain X, where X is _____” format. I love those so much, mainly because of how satisfying they are: the timing aspect gives it a push-your-luck vibe, and you feel like you’re getting away with something when you get it to the high values! You feel clever, there are opportunities for awesome combos, and your game is memorable.

Such cards are hard to balance (but, remember, balance schmalance), because the timing aspect is very limiting, but the value is also very variable. However, it feels good to pull off a high number on these, so I’d assume they are balanced assuming you’ll hit pretty close to that maximum value.

Crack the Case is based off of your location’s shroud, which usually hovers between 2 and 5. Search for the Truth is based off of the number of clues you currently have, which is almost limitless, and therefore, they put an upper limit: “up to 5”.

You could say that both are more or less the same. Crack the Case has a similar cap of 5, but it’s hidden: you need to have played a few games to understand what those shroud values usually are. Putting the upper limit on the card feels less elegant, because it’s a rule they have to spell out rather than let you learn, but it also raises the barrier to entry. If an experienced player uses it on a 3 and reveal a 5 on the following turn, it’s a “fun” frustration: you played it safe and shouldn’t have. If a new player does it, it’s just frustrating, because they weren’t shown what these values could be.

Still, you can just say that this is part of your learning process: your second game will be more satisfying, and that’s just part of the depth of the game. Sure.

However, one place where calling out the limit makes it clear is by pushing you towards action. Without a limit, you can spend turns and turns boosting up a single action, which leads to a static, stale game. Sure, that one action will be cool, but will it be cool enough to warrant that big of a warmup?

By putting this hard cap, you tell players exactly when they should stop planning to boost it. Without a limit, players start planning dozens of turns ahead, which means they plan dozens of possible outcomes for each, which quickly pushes them towards AP. With an “up to” clause, you tell your players that they can plan… up until this exact point.

When they get to that point, they use their cards, and then get planning cool combo #2, looking 2, 3, 4 turns into the future instead of 20.

On All Fronts #4: Letters, threats, and blood

If you’re only here for the narrative, look for the boxed text. My GM introspection is sprinkled between those.

We had finished the previous session with the players finding a trapdoor in Nigel Aldain’s office, which lead to an underground cave with three chests, one of which was already open. We ended the session in between the opening of the two other chests, with the players finding elixirs allowing them to transform into elemental forms.

After separating the potions they found, the players open the other chest, and find three bags of coins, a signet ring, paper, ink, and quills, and two letters: one is written on vellum, and its broken seal is huge, and shaped like a horse’s hoof; the second is written on paper, and sealed with the signet found in the chest, which shows a stylized stars, with a small circle between each of its branches.

Click to make larger

The first note is addressed to Nigel, and exposes a bit of the situation with him. It is also quite agressive, openly threatening his children. The other is Nigel’s response to “Master Carne”, responding to their threats with his own. Then follows a brief overview of the results of his research, and the limits he’s been facing.

The PCs conclude that the entire Undead assault is probably Crane going from threat to action, but are far from certain. They also find it weird that the reply letter was not sent, but do not investigate further.

After reading the notes and discussing what they could mean, the PCs decide to leave the money in the chest: while they’re pretty confident about coming back and taking it, they can’t subtly carry around the many hundreds of coins.

In case you do not already use them, I will suggest that letters and notes are a GM’s best friend. Exposition is boring, but letters which offer exposition AND tension are quite useful. The threats makes the PCs pay attention, but also gives them an idea of who the NPCs are: all the PCs know about Carne is that they’re a violent badass, and that makes them interested.

The PCs start exploring the cave further: they find a very narrow tunnel sloping upward to a masonry wall, and a wider, downward tunnel leading to a wooden wall, held in place by grooves set in the rock on all sides.

Phaldrimi tests the wooden wall by knocking on it to confirm it leads to an open space, and then puts her ear to it: she can hear the sound of water falling on the other side.

After a bit of discussion, the players want to avoid crashing the wall open and water surging towards them: they therefore decide to share one of the water elemental elixirs to be able to pass through cracks in the wall, and, if the other side is water, to swim to safety.

As you know if you’ve played a TTRPG before, when I say “after a bit of discussion”, I mean “after 30 minutes of talking through stuff”. I only half listened, making sure they were understanding the situation correctly and answering their questions, so I can’t relate the entire thing, nor do I think it would be interesting anyway. However, this is for many players (including SL, who plays Phaldrimi, and probably others around the table) the most interesting part of the game, so I let them have fun with it.

The PCs pass through the crevaces of the wooden wall in semi-liquid form, and reform at the entrance of an enormous natural cavern. The first thing the players notice is the smell: not quite vinagry, not quite earthy…

Me: It smells like… you know, when you’ve had a headache for a while, and then at some point you go “hey, my head isn’t throbbing anymore”, and you don’t remember how long it’s been, but you know it used to hurt and it doesn’t anymore.

MG: That makes no sense.

Me: That is absolutely the right conclusion, but Braerann’s brain has concluded that that was what this smell was.

Water is falling from the ceiling in a constant flow, feeding into a basin that dominates the room. The pool is reflecting a starry night sky which isn’t there: even if the cavern was open, the stars and colours are all off.

There is a tunnel leading out to the left, and a finished stone platform, with a wooden door, on the far side of the room.

There are multiple creatures, all lying down and immobile: you can see a few skeletons and a zombie; near the water is Nigel, wearing a chain shirt and a scimitar by his side; finally, there are two weird creatures, half-fish, half-octopus, one lying on the stone, and one floating in the pool.

Here I used synesthesia to describe something as alien. Synesthesia is a disorder that leads your brain to associate stimulus of one sense to another: a friend of mine suffers from it, and associates every number with a taste, meaning when he reads the number 1, his brain acts as if he had a mouthful of honey, but the number 6 tastes like old cheese.

The first time he told me, I just couldn’t really comprehend it: I understood all of the words, but couldn’t add them up. Interestingly enough, another friend went “is that like how all B’s are always red?” and that’s when that friend learned that he too was synesthete.

That feeling of understanding all the parts, but not what they mean, is exactly what I want players to feel like when they interact with stuff from another plane, and I found this to be a perfect tool to do so. I assume that the way I portray it is wildly inaccurate from a medical standpoint, but in terms of storytelling, it does exactly what I need it to. Plus, the image you conjure nudges the players towards the tone of the scene: in this case, I did not want them to see the pool as a threat, and therefore set up a positive scene.

Also, the fish creatures, you might have identified from the picture as Aboleths, but they’re not actually Aboleths: I just needed something aquautic, alien-looking, and not too threatening. I took that picture of an Aboleth and modified it a bit.

The players start exploring the cave. First, Braerann checks Nigel. The elf is dead, a gaping wound in his chest, the flesh around it rotten, the telltale sign of necrotic energy. However, they find a blood-covered note in his hand: a message of love for his children, and a… less positive one for his wife.

Arodenn, Pendleton, Mykellia,

Please remember that I love you. I always have, and I always will, dead or alive. I just would have liked you to see the world the way I did when I was your age, before the humans tore down the forests, pierced the mountains and chained the sea.

Hammaria,
I'm sorry I have to use you this way. If it makes you feel better to think that I love you, you can have that. I hope you understand that I used your fortune for a far better cause than you would have-

As much as they disliked Hammaria in the interactions they had with her, this letter broke the PCs’ hearts, and there was a long discussion about whether they’d show it to her. In the end, they decided to tear the paper in half, and play it by ear later on.

After making sure everyone else was dead, the PCs started investigating the water. While everybody avoided touching it, Braerann decided to bottle some up, and, in doing so, let some of the water touch his skin. When he did, he had a vision of a ball of light being torn into 4 smaller orbs, one for each element, and for a brief moment, he froze and felt a deep, overwhelming sadness.

Yvarge wanted to know if that vision was unique to Braerann, and touched the water as well: he had a similar experience, but rather than a ball of light, it was the Koru Behemoth his tribe was living on that he saw torn apart and become 4 orbs.

Eliel and Phaldrimi decided not to touch the water: whatever it was, the didn’t want any part of it. They decided to go investigate the door on the far side: it was barred from their side, and once open, it led out into a long tunnel, too long for them to see. Braerann came to investigate with them: as a former smuggler, he knows a thing or two about secret tunnels.

While they’re looking at the tunnel, Yvarge is still playing around with the sky-water. After a few minutes, the rest of the party hear a deafening BOOM, and see a flash of light: when they turn around, the basin is now clear water, and Yvarge is standing on the shore, soaking wet, his right eye looking like a multi-faceted mirror.

So… I love making PCs weird. I love the Goblins comics, where a barbarian is slowly turning into a demon, a goblin has a golem-ish arm, or the villain is somehow half-tree. Or to give players blessings/titles, and accompanying special abilities, when they achieve something major. I LOVE these things, and I was talking with KJ (who plays Yvarge) about those just the week before that game. When he saw the vision-giving water, he put two-and-two together. A few private messages and we were off to the races.

Now I would have been 100% okay to have the players avoid the water completely, and that’s important. I did not tell KJ “hey, please do X”, nor did I force the issue, but I left this there and they made something happen. I also don’t know 100% where this thread is going. I told KJ he’d discover its impacts over time, but I am working with him to see where the line is, and make sure I don’t go against what he wants for his character: I think it would be disrespectful to force his character somewhere without his OK.

After a few minutes of questioning Yvarge about what happened –and he blacked out, remembering water coming up his leg, but nothing after that–, the PCs hear from far away the rumble of thunder, followed by piercing screams of agony. Looking around, they realize that both the slain zombie and Nigel’s corpse are… gone. Oops.

Without time to spare, they find a trail of Nigel’s blood and follow it into the estate’s basement proper (after having found a door blasted open), and there are the two corpses, dragging themselves across the floor towards a staircase. When the PCs try to talk to Nigel, the only think they get back is a snarl. Braerann unceremoniously smashes his skull in, and Phaldrimi does the same with the zombie.

Yet, the screams continue, coming from upstairs. Climbing the stairs towards the top floor, where the rest of the NPCs were locked up in the vault, the screams get louder and louder, and the PCs can hear a strong wind, as if air was pulled up to that floor. The smell of rot is also getting stronger and stronger as they the steps.

When they get to the top floor, the scene is quite different from when they left it. The vacuum and screams are coming from the shrine: the room seems to be emitting thick shadows, covering that side of the corridor in darkness.

Standing in front of the darkness is the Grave Knight they had met earlier. On the other side are four skeletons carrying the unconscious dwarf they had saved earlier, and, next to them, a deformed, feral version of the halfling rogue they had defeated earlier.

I had a bit too much fun on Photoshop over that week. I wanted to make sure that the players recognized Yllara from her token, but also could tell right away that she was now undead, and not that she was an ally of theirs from the beginning.

It worked VERY well.

As the party gets in view of the undead, the Grave Knight raises his stone-tipped spear and points it towards Phaldrimi: she feels this oppressive force, this dark fate. On the large stone tip, Phaldrimi’s full name appears, as if instantly engraved. Under it are two numbers: her birthyear, and the current year.

An intense melee ensues: stuck between the Grave knight on one end, and the skeletons and Yllara on the other, the PCs have to handle two fronts. Using the staircase to funnel the skeletons, Braerann tries to hold the pressure away from Eliel, but they don’t have much room. The ranger is focusing fire on Yllara: “I killed her once, why does she think she’ll get out this time?”

On the other side, the Grave Knight fires off a cone of necrotic energy on the group, and engages both Yvarge and Phaldrimi. Quickly, they need to take rounds off to Rally and recover some health points. As soon as she can, Phaldrimi drinks the Elixir of Stone, hardening her skin and limiting the Grave Knight’s mobility as the floor starts to meld with his boots.

While Braerann is holding off the skeletons, the former halfling spits black sludge towards the dwarf who hates her from the bottom of his heart.

Me: So 19 hits, and you get a mouthful of this dark, foul mucus which burns your face and part of your beard. That deals 8 necrotic damage. Now, is… 11 higher than your Dexterity?

MG: I have 12!

Me: So the muck does NOT get in your mouth.

Entire table: EWWWWWW!

As time advances, the screams from the shrine are getting louder, and the shadows are getting thicker. Skeletons are starting to come out, and Yvarge gets free from the Grave Knight to engage them. After a few rounds of being saved by the Elixir, Phaldrimi’s defenses are finally pierced as the spear draws blood: despite a glancing blow, that intense feeling she was feeling turns to pain as her name is erased from the spear’s tip.

After a few rounds of status quo, the Ghoul is tired of getting hit with arrows: she jumps over the railings of the stairs, and gets in melee with Eliel, slashing at her with its claws. Braerann manages to finish off the skeletons by pushing the last one down the stairs, and rams into it, separating the two. Eliel manages to get loose, and despite very close quarters, takes a shot towards Yllara, killing her once again.

Putting all of her faith and energy in a powerful blow, Phaldrimi’s flail connects with the Grave Knight’s skull: staggered, the undead stares at her, bares its fangs, and yells. As it raises its left hand, and closes it, one of the skeletons engaged with Yvarge crumbles to dust, and a dark cloud of energy leaves it to merge with the Knight, giving it a second wind.

As the shadows get even deeper, the skeletons’ swords become bathed in shadows, and with every cut, Yvarge can feel the burn of his skin’s decay, corroded by the energy of death. While he manages to do short work of them, he is hanging by a thread.

Braerann and Eliel having handled the dead on their front, they go and help Phaldrimi: together, the three of them manage to defeat the Grave Knight. The Paladin’s flail connects one last time, turning its armour and body to ash, leaving only its shield and spear, and a dark orb of negative energy floating, starting to fly towards the shrine.

Before he can think about intercepting it, Yvarge’s mirror eye emits a quick ray of rainbow energy that hits the orb, which instantly dissipates. Confused, but postponing questions, the PCs delve into the shadows, only to see the shrine, walls covered in red sinew, air filled with ash, and the urn they had seen earlier floating in the air, emitting an enormous gateway to a barren wasteland, hands fighting each other to get a grasp on the edge and pull themselves out.

The portal, nearly reaching the ceiling, is getting smaller and smaller by the second. Yvarge, afraid those hands might be the Blackrose or their guests, tries to pull them out, only to be clawed at as the portal closes, the screams and wind end, the shadows, ash, and sinew dissipate, and the urn crashes back to the ground.

I have to say that this is probably the coolest combat encounter I’ve ever had in any TTRPG. It was tense, got serious very quickly, had a lot of awesome moments, a lot of emotions. It was SO. Great.

Digging into the encounter design a bit, I think a few things worked towards making it so awesome:

  • The party being stuck between two fronts: I definitely would not recommend it to every group, but having 3 melee fighters in one group really made this setup shine.
  • Ghoul-Yllara and Phaldrimi’s name on the spear made it personal: Both led to strong emotional reactions, and made the PCs care about what would happen.
  • Cool effects on the monsters’ side: Yllara’s spit and the Grave Knight’s second wind by killing an ally were strong moments, not because of the mechanical impacts (the first didn’t trigger, the second healed the boss for a measly 7 hit points), but because of the imagery.
  • But also for the PCs: Braerann was 1 point of damage short of finishing off the skeletons, so I offered him a Strength check to push the last one down the stairs; Eliel had her second kill shot on Yllara, as she just manage to wrestle free from her claws; Phaldrimi’s multiple Smite Evils meant she was dishing out absurd amounts of damage, and SL was giddy when she dealt the final blow; finally, Yvarge’s laser eye was unexpected and came at a dramatic moment.

The enemies themselves were custom made: the Skeletons were standard skeleton mooks, but started adding 1d6 necrotic damage to their attacks once the Escalation die reached 3.

Yllara started as a standard Ghoul. First, I applied the Lunk modifier to lower her defenses but increase her hit points. Second, to follow the Rogue motif, I boosted her Initiative and kept her halfling disengaging abilities. Third, I gave her the Spit attack, which basically was equivalent to her Claws, but at range. Lastly, instead of triggering vulnerability on a natural even hit, I made it happen on a roll higher than the target’s Dexterity score.

The Grave Knight (stat block below) started as a Medium Black Dragon. Like Yllara, I made it Lunk and switched its natural roll triggers to key off of PC’s ability scores. I reflavored its acid breath to necrotic damage, and changed its acid resistance to the standard Undead traits. I also changed its damage from static to a roll: while I like static damage, I prefer rolling it for named enemies. I changed the Draconic grace to the Riposte: I thought it would be somewhat similar, probably giving it an extra 2 or 3 attacks over the course of the battle. The ranged attack and Marked for Death abilities come from his magical spear. The Devour ability is just there for flavour: knowing he’d use it on a Skeleton, it would only be a +7 hit point boost, and would take one of its allies out.

I had planned for Yllara to come back up DURING the fight, not before, but given how long they had spent downstairs, I decided that the effect that animated Nigel and the zombie below had also affected Yllara. I had also prepared an effect from the portal every round, with reinforcements and the terrain changing, but given how much trouble the PCs were having, I only used half: more mooks coming in on round 2, and extra damage starting on round 4.

After taking a minute to catch their breaths, the PCs hear commotion coming from the other side of the corridor: THE VAULT! The Blackrose, their staff and guests, were hidden in it with the dwarf!

They run there, to find the vault’s door torn off its hinges. While no one seems injured, everyone is frozen in fear, in shock.

“The screams… they stopped… Is it… over?”, Arodenn struggles to ask the PCs.

The party comforts everyone as well as they can. They inform the family of Nigel’s death, and give the children their half of the letter: they’ll keep the other half for themselves for now.

After emotional and uncomfortable discussions, the PCs circle back to get the Grave Knight’s spear, Arodenn’s shield, which she gifted them, and Nigel’s chest full of coins. They also find, affixed to the Grave Knight’s bone shield, a scroll case containing a letter:

Yes, the name on the scroll differs from the one in the stat block. I’m sure you’ve seen your boss call the new guy Matt instead of Mike, right?

We ended on them identifying the items and reading that last letter. Speaking of, here are the items:


Between the players getting interested in the letters, excited over the loot, the exploration of the cave, the emotional interactions, and the AMAZING combat encounter, this might be the best TTRPG session I’ve ever run, out of several hundreds.

The only thing that I’m disappointed in is that now… I’m not sure what to prep for the next session. I’m assuming the PCs will hang out at the Estate some more, probably talk to the guard? They might also go back to the nearby city to try and sell the jewelry they “retrieved”, and talk to other people. Or they could decide to investigate that secret tunnel, see where it leads.

Which is a tiny blip on an otherwise superb session.

Identical vs Equivalent

I often say that board games are the combination of psychology and mathematics. More exactly, they use mathematics to induce specific psychological reactions: tension, angst, euphoria, excitement, satisfaction, all just because your number will be lower than your opponents’. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Now let’s take that vision of games and look at them through a game design lense. A game’s elements (be they components, theme, or mechanisms) are not the point: they are tools to create a specific experience. Sure, all of these elements are important pieces, but the sum of the parts are what’s important.

This sheds light on one easy pitfall of design: to look for identical alternatives rather than equivalent: too often, I hear playtesters suggest alternatives, and designers turn them down because of some minor mathematical differences. This is especially true when we talk about streamlining, about suggestions that could simplify an entire system but are turned down because that one action would now give 4 rocks instead of 3. Is that a meaningful difference?

I talked about one similar situation in this blog’s very first post, when we had included 5 different ways for tokens to score, and 4 different mini-games, which were technically different, but did not affect the game’s experience or the players’ decisions at all.

Another example is from the roleplaying games side: in 13th Age, players roll obscene amounts of dice for damage. The designers strongly suggests to instead either (a) take the average damage, (b) roll one die and multiply it by the number of dice, or (c) roll two or three dice and take the average for the rest.

These are all mathematically different: the static number obviously stands out, but even multiplying one die leads to much swingier results than the standard die roll, which itself is swingier than just rolling a few and averaging the rest. However, while all are mathematically different in how extreme the results will tend to be, the game does not change much between the two. You could have a group where each player chooses a different way of calculating damage, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference: while not identical methods, they are by and large equivalent.

When designing, every design element should be there for a reason. During your process, it’s important to look for equivalent alternatives, which could fill the same role in the design, without being identical.

For example, High Rise, Lords of Waterdeep, London, and Cleopatra and the Society of Architects all have a Corruption mechanism: some things you do are stronger, but come with this negative token you then have to manage, and try not to have the most of. They all have a different associated mechanism, but they all have the same impact: give some actions a delayed, and uncertain cost. If you took any two and switched the Corruption mechanisms, they would mostly still feel the same. There would be differences, but I’m not sure they would be that meaningful.

Of course, the difference between identical and equivalent is very subjective, and highly context-dependent: you might disagree with my example above. Yet, I would still suggest you err on the side of openness, especially early in your design process: it’s so easy to try something, and, if it doesn’t work, to just CTRL+Z the change.

On All Fronts #3: CLEAR!

If you’re only here for the narrative, look for the boxed text. My GM introspection is sprinkled between those.

We had finished the previous session with the party taking Yllara down, and interrogating Medrash about what was happening. Last time, I talked about how I wasn’t very happy with what the PCs found on her, so we had a bit of a retcon, which I blamed on them “not fighting her where I had first placed her in my notes”. Haha, as if my notes were that organized!

In addition to the rope of stone, potion, papers, and coinage, Eliel finds two large and expensive necklaces in the bag: one made of a gold chain with inset emeralds, and another made of platinum links, with a large rose-shaped pendant made of black opals. “She won’t miss ’em, I’m sure”, Eliel comments as she pockets them.

Eliel also spots, on the halfling’s finger, a green band topped with a white gem. Especially weird is that the ring seems to be made of organic matter, rather than minerals, and even the golden flourishes move as actual vines.

The retcon was very well received, most probably because it 100% played in their favour. You might notice that this item does a LOT more than regular 13th Age items: that’s kind of my signature thing. I like to be more stingy on magic items, but give them a bigger punch. Especially with a group of 4 martial characters, with very few special tricks, I made it a point to give them something that could be used in combat to get more options.

I also fluff magic items as having been created by a specific Icon, and I always like to identify which one has: eventually, I’ll have stuff key off of it. The Untamed One is my version of the High Druid, but is a villainous figure who believes civilization should be wiped so nature can take back its dominion.

After having identified the ring, Braerann spits on it: “This is a ring, plant stuff, AND spell casting? Take it away from me!”

Yvarge is more interested in it, loving the idea of extra options in combat, until he realizes that both the spell and the resistance key off of the user’s Wisdom.

Eliel leaves the ring to Phaldrimi: “My bow is better than the vines, and I probably won’t ever get staggered”.

Phaldrimi puts on the ring, just as they hear sounds of combat coming up from the staircase, but also steps: someone is coming up, and the group gets in position.

It’s a zombie, carrying the unconscious body of the Dwarf who was a guest at the party. As it comes into view, the PCs start pounding on it, but can’t take him out before he lands a nasty hit on Braerann.

After the zombie hits the ground, the PCs make sure the Dwarf is still alive, and then go down the stairs, following the cacophony from the main floor.

They get the entrance hall of the estate to find an enormous, hulking zombie, eleven feet tall, with two of the monstrous skeletons riding its back.

A wall has been torn down, staff members have been torn apart by skeletons, and guards are trying to defend the house from the undead. Arodenn is keeping two skeletons away from her injured brother and young sister as best she can, but is about to be overrun.

The PCs spring into action. While his mates deal with the skeletons who threaten the NPCs, Braerann, still wounded from his encounter on the floor above, charges the hulking zombie. Even as a dwarf, even after years in prison, the stench of rot overtakes him, and he feels like life is draining away from him. The hulking corpse clobbers him twice, sends him flying towards a wall: Braerann chugs the healing potion he took from Eliel’s bag, gets back on his feet, and runs back into combat.

After a round or two to deal with the mook skeletons, the party focuses fire on the zombie, and Eliel scores a critical hit on it, thanks to her experience fighting undead (which she crits on 18+, thanks to rangers’ Favored Enemy). The arrow sticks itself straight through one of its eyes, through its brain, and takes the hulk down in one quick swoosh.

The two glass cannons who were on its back are, all of a sudden, surrounded by a melee-focused party: it’s not looking too good for them. However, the PCs can see the zombie twitching: maybe this isn’t as done as they wanted.

The Boneshards use their spears and deal some pretty nasty injuries to the PCs. Then, the giant’s remaining eye opens again, and it starts swinging wildly, killing a guard, and almost taking Phaldrimi down with him. As the giant tries to get back up, Phaldrimi takes one quick swing of her flail: yet another crit, and the zombie is no more.

The Boneshards try to flee, but the party won’t let them, and they are quickly defeated.

So my goal with this encounter was to (1) allow the players to feel like they saved people, and (2) let them feel badass when they crit and take down this giant monster (which has been heavily foreshadowed with the regular zombies). In that way, both were achieved.

However, I’m really disappointed at the difficulty of the fight, although the fact that a crit drops it means the fight will be incredibly swingy: in the end, there was no point tracking its hit points. Also, I’ve been using a lot of NPC guards, and it’s made life easy on the PCs. They don’t deal that much damage, but when the monsters target them, those are hits the PCs are not getting.

Also, in retrospect, I wanted both the giant zombie fight, and a zombie bringing the Dwarf’s body upstairs. It would have been super easy to merge those two and have the hulking zombie come up with the dwarf, with his menagerie behind him. If I wanted to keep the NPCs, those could have come up first, pushed upstairs by the giant. It probably would have been cooler, and saved maybe 20 minutes?

With the enemies dealt with, the PCs go around and help the recently unconscious: Phaldrimi lays her hands on two, using her holy energy to close their wounds.

Yvarge goes to Arodenn, who is clearly in shock, and badly beaten: “You fought well. Take a breath. You’ll get used to it.” Brief, but what the Lady needed to hear.

After they start bandaging their own wounds, Arodenn finally approaches the PCs: “I have no idea what we should be doing. You definitely look like you’re better suited to handle this.”

Phaldrimi nods: “What is the most easily defendable room in this house?”, she asks the half-elf.

“The vault.”

“Well then take everyone who’s still breathing, and go lock yourselves in the vault. We’ll go around the house and make sure it’s safe, and then, we’ll let you know so you can get out.”

Arodenn nods, and starts giving orders to the guards around the room. She gives Phaldrimmi her keyring: “With this, you can get almost anywhere in the house: there’s a key that only my mother has. If those rooms are breached though, that means the door’s been torn down.”

After thinking for a beat, a tear comes to her eye: “I… When you get to my quarters, in the guard tower, you’ll find my grandfather’s shield. If he had known you, he’d want you to have it: take it, and use it to help those in need.”

She then takes Phaldrimmi aside, as others are helping the injured up the stairs: “One more thing. I love my father, and I can’t believe that he’d be in any way related to this, but… he’s been locked in his office for hours while his family and staff are getting slaughtered. Something’s going on with him. Could you make sure he’s okay?”

I always think that descriptions of these moments are my weak point as a GM. I rarely let myself get into these emotional states because of the awkwardness of the social setting, but in this case, I didn’t feel that block. I think it’s due to the remote nature of the game, probably?

As the survivors climb the stairs to get to the vault, the PCs uneventfully explore the mansion: the kitchen, with a feast ready to be served; the ridiculously sized ballroom; the large exhibit of arcane curios; the master bedroom, which had already been searched through, with a large jewelry box tossed to the side, and curiously missing two large pieces.

So while I can describe it as a single paragraph, this took probably over an hour. While some of the descriptions were interesting, it was never scenes: there was never any tension. I didn’t want to throw another pointless combat encounter at them, and I felt like I had already used up most of what I had prepped, except for two scenes: the “boss fight” with the Grave Knight, and them finding what’s going on with the father.

The latter had to happen in the basement. The fight with the Grave Knight, in retrospect, I should have used. I never found a room that was both (a) interesting for such a showdown, and (b) made sense for him to be in. If I’m being more honest, I also wanted it to happen after, as a conclusion to the adventure, but in the end it put a long slog in the middle of the session.

That being said, talking about it with players after, they didn’t get that feel at all. Oh well. I still think that I should have offered for the Guards to help with the sweep, and limit their actions to a single floor, maybe?

One interesting room the party encountered was the Shrine. On the third floor, this large room was dominated by two statues of former Blackrose Matriarchs, large tapestries, and brazeros which seemed to burn without making smoke. In front of each statue was a stone altar: on one was a porcelain urn, but the urn on the other one had been knocked to the ground, ashes spilling to the floor.

Phaldrimi, as a former religious hermit, tries to understand if this could be linked to the undead: she sees an obvious connection, but as far as she knows, an incinerated body can only be used to spawn incorporeal undead, and all of the undead they’ve encountered here have been corporeal.

Eliel looks into the other urn, opens it, and sticks her hand in it. “It’s filled with ash,” I tell her. “Well in Zelda there would be a bunch of cash in it.”

I really liked this scene. I thought the urn hint was too obvious, but it worked pretty well: they intuited it was related to the undead, but don’t really understand what it’s there for. They’ll see soon enough.

I should have pushed Phaldrimi to use her Icon dice –I use Whiffless Icon rolls rather than the standard rolls presented in the core books. We’re 3 sessions in and no one has used them yet, so it would have been a great introduction.

After leaving the shrine, the PCs go meet the family in the vault: “We need to go through your father’s office, and the guard tower. Aside from that, the place is secure,” Eliel assures them.

Braerann spots Medrash, the dragonborn goon, who’s been manacled and is under a guard’s constant attention. He orders them to uncuff him, and when Hamaria refuses, the dwarf is very clear: “Either you let him go, or your daughter takes care of the remaining invaders herself. She was doing such a good job before we showed up earlier.”

Hamaria is furious: not only is her authority undermined, but so is her daughter’s. “I think you’re overplaying a terrible hand. You don’t have much to offer on this one,” Braerann says as he stares down the guard, takes his halberd, and offers it to Medrash as he pulls him out of the vault.

As Braerann uncuffs his buddy and lets him go, Hamaria pulls Phaldrimi to the side: “Look, I… Whatever my husband is doing in that lab of his, I just want you to know I have nothing to do with it. I don’t think he’d delve into necromancy, but he is a secretive man. Whatever you find down there, it’s not Blackrose business: it’s all Nigel.”

The PCs go into Nigel’s office, which they find empty. It doesn’t take very long for them to spot a hidden trapdoor, which leads them to a natural cavern, where they find two natural-looking tunnels (one very narrow, and one corridor-width), and three wooden chests, one of which is open and empty.

Being adventurers in an RPG, the players take the time to open the chests: in the first, they find six large glass bottles, filled with various weird substances: two are filled with an aqua substance that ebbs and flows, as if it had its own tides; two more are hot to the touch, and contain a bright orange liquid; one contains a thick brown sludge, barely liquid enough to drink; the last contains cloudy liquid, so light that when they shake the bottle, the content seems barely affected by gravity.

After a bit of studying, the PCs identify the substances as elemental elixirs: each one is linked to an element, and gives whoever drinks it elemental powers for 5 minutes:

Elixir of Wave Shape (water) makes you swim like a fish and breathe underwater, squeeze through any cracks, and resist physical attacks;
Elixir of Cinder Body (fire) makes you resist fire, allows you to cast Burning Hands, and damage those who attack you in melee;
Elixir of Seismic Form (earth) allows you to pass through rock, become harder to hit in combat if you don’t move, and to cause enemies you hit in melee to be stuck to the ground;
Elixir of Celestial Transformation (air) makes you fly, and makes you very hard to hit with ranged weapons.

The party also recognizes that these potions are unheard of: they have never before heard of potions this powerful.

The PCs split the potions amongst themselves, and approached the other chest… Which they’ll open next week!

I asked the PCs if they wanted to end this week on more loot, or start the next on some loot, and the vote was 50/50, and so we rolled for it.

I really like the potions. I love one-time powerful items. Plus, in this case, they’re an important plot point.

One part I really would have liked to do a better job about was describing the potions. They saw potions, I saw the time and rushed to tell them what they did so I could hit a fun stopping point after the chests. However, just describing the potions and letting them figure out the elemental motif would probably have been more fun.


Overall, this was an okay session, a B: not a bad one, but maybe a bit forgettable. It was mostly a lot of missed opportunities, and if I’m being honest, it’s because I underprepared. I felt like I still had plenty of prep left over from the previous week, and it showed.

If I had gone through my prep, and analyzed it from the players’ new perspective, I would have thought about making the guards take some of the floors, or combining the two combat encounters, or where to put the Boss fight.

Either way, now that I’m prepped for next week, I’m SUPER PSYCHED for it: it’s going to ROCK, I’m fairly sure!

On All Fronts #2: The Halfling

If you’re only here for the narrative, look for the boxed text. My GM introspection is sprinkled between those.

We had finished the previous session with Eliel saving a halfling from an undead-infested library. As I discussed in the post for the first session, that halfling is a thief, who saw the reception as an opportunity to sneak in and steal stuff. A lot of my planning went on establishing who Yllara (I’m tired of writing “the halfling”) was, what her priorities were, and therefore, how she’d interact with the PCs. I didn’t prepare a scene, because I didn’t know how the players would react to her, but by knowing her, I felt comfortable ad libbing the scene.

“So… who is that?”, asks Yvarge, pointing at the shady looking halfling Eliel just helped out.

The situation is tense, and no one wants to speak first. Everyone has their hands on their weapons, but no one is drawing.

It was Phaldrimi who broke the ice: “You don’t look like staff, nor like a guard, and you weren’t at the reception. You also don’t look undead. We won’t ask again: who are you?”

After looking at the other four, the halfling asks: “You don’t look like guards either, yet you’re armed to the teeth.”

The PCs look at each other. “Trying to help. Saw some people in need.”

“Alright then, if you’re into doing the right thing, I might use your help. We think the Blackrose have paid a heraldic society to forge evidence of a noble bloodline linking back to the first Queen. I was sent here to find those documents, using the reception as a distraction. Then, undead showed up, and the plan had to change. I was aiming to abort, but with your help, maybe we can salvage this mission.”

The PCs were listening, but uncertain about how to react to this news. After some back-and-forth that didn’t seem to advance the discussion, the halfling gave them an ultimatum:

“Listen, every minute wasted here might mean a lost life. I’m opening this door, and you can follow me in, or let me be, but I won’t let you get in my way.”

And with that, she opens the door and charges in.

So Yllara’s entire spiel is true, but it does hide some important truths: it was worded in a way that made it seem like she’s with some sort of law enforcement agency, when in reality, she works for a mob family, looking to score something they can blackmail the Blackrose over. Interestingly, the PCs never asked who she was working with –even though, of course, she would have lied about that.

Again, the players are not yet used to playing together, nor to the online platform, and so did not take initiative yet. I hadn’t planned for Yllara to insinuate that she represented the law, but based on the way the players presented themselves, it made a lot of sense for her to tag along and let them clear the undead from her path.

I had thought she’d open the door, and if they didn’t want to help, she’d just get out of there and leave them with the undead. However, rogue-type means she rolled super high on initiative, and had to commit. Doesn’t matter anyway, because they did follow!

As she opens the door and tumbles in the room, the party notices that it’s more than a handful of zombies: some skeletons are also roaming the room, and a Boneshard skeleton is also searching the room for something.

With Yllara on their side, they take control of the battlefield and use the bookshelves to their advantage. Eliel fires her bow through the shelves to take the Boneshard skeleton out of the fight, but not before it nails Phaldrimi with one of its bone spears, through the shoulder and in the shelf behind her.

At one point, Phaldrimi lands a blow strong enough to take out two skeletons.

SL: “But I’m only in melee with one, does it still work?”

Me: “It does! Tell me, how do you kill a skeleton that’s 15 feet away with your flail?”

SL: “Well, my first blow destroys the one in front of me, and as its skull is falling down, I kick it right through the one at the back!”

Braerann, blocked out of melee and without Eliel’s mastery of archery, decides to knock one of the bookshelves on the zombies piling up on the other side: however, by the time he succeeds, the zombies have already fallen to Yvarge and Yllara’s blows.

This battle was, once again, easier than I would have liked, but it still had some highlights. I had balanced the encounter for the party to be alone, and Yllara on their side made it a bit of a cake walk.

That being said, the geometry of the room made it such that there were two melee fronts:

Which is interesting, because of the party’s heavy melee focus. By not having just one bottleneck, it allowed both Yvarge and Phaldrimi to share the tank roles.

When Eliel wanted to shoot the Boneshard through the bookshelf, I had imagined them having a solid back between the two rows. However, I thought the idea of shooting through the shelves was cool, so I dropped the idea, and asked her to shoot at disadvantage: basically, it was like the enemies had cover. Of course, it didn’t stop her from destroying her target, because she can’t roll under a 17.

I feel bad from MG. He handily dealt with the Zombie that was behind the lines, and then wanted to knock the bookshelf down. I didn’t want to give them a cheap way to pull multiple attacks per round, so I told him “sure, next round”, and by then, the enemies were dealt with. I’m not sure how I should have handled it differently: maybe just fudge their hit points so they were still standing then? Maybe the two attack thing is not as big a deal as I thought it was.

Overall, despite being an easy fight, it was a pretty cool one with some pretty memorable moments.

As the last undead falls, Yllara does not waste time: she starts looking through the private study for the document, describing it to the party. While Phaldrimi sits down on a couch to bandage her wounds, Yvarge goes to the side of his fellow halfling. Braerann sees a door at the back of that room, but it won’t budge.

MG: I’ll put my shoulder through it. *Rolls* Oof. Nope I don’t.

Me: Actually, you give it a few strong bursts, and you can see the door starting to come apart. However, Yllara looks at you and shushes you with the power of a hundred librarians.

As Braerann realizes his mistake, Arodenn, oldest Blackrose child and captain of the estate’s guards, runs into the room: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHY ARE YOU BREAKING DOWN MY HOUSE?”

Braerann, surprised by the attention he’s getting, says he heard noises from beyond the door, was only trying to be helpful. As Arodenn knocks, they can hear there’s someone on the other side, barricaded where they thought it would be safe. When Arodenn identifies herself, the librarian starts taking away his barricade.

This is just textbook “failing forward”: players wanted to access that side room, and the roll shouldn’t say “no, do something else”, just “sure, but”. I probably should have pointed it out to the players: when you’re used to D&D’s “yes or no” skill rolls, this might just have seemed like DM fiat?

Yllara approaches Yvarge and asks him to follow him back into the other room: “I thought you were guests here. She said “my house”. Are you all Blackrose?”

“No we’re not, but she is. We just helped her find her sister.”

“Don’t you think maybe it’s a bad idea to look for what we’re looking for while she’s right next to you?”

“Well…”

As Yvarge tries to think through this new information, Yllara shakes her head, and plunges her poison-covered daggers in Yvarge’s chest. Taken aback, he’s not quick enough to catch up to her, and by the time he gets back to the common room, there’s no trace of her.

The librarian gets out of his room and jumps into Arodenn’s arms, crying about how scared he was, how he saw the skeletons get in and just locked himself in the workshop, thought he would die, and Arodenn patiently listens to him and tries to comfort him.

Then, Yvarge staggers in, two fresh wounds on his chest: “So, I don’t think she was completely honest with us…”

Again, that was me roleplaying Yllara. She did not want to end up cornered, and neither did I. I couldn’t see the PCs discussing with both her and Arodenn without something going down between the two, so might as well make it happen on her terms. In a way, it was the consequence of Braerann’s botched roll. There was probably something Yvarge could have said to get her to stay, but he didn’t.

I’m pretty happy about the way I handled her attack: her attack was the surprise round, meaning we then had to roll initiative. It basically was a roll off between her and Yvarge, and either way I would have been okay with it. Too often, chases in situations like these end up very boring, but by limiting it to a single die, it both followed the rules, and, more importantly, was dramatic.

Yvarge briefly tells the party about what just happened. The reactions go from shock to anger: Braerann, in particular, is very angry at her. They decide to fill Arodenn in: this halfling is looking for proof that the Blackrose’s noble bloodline was forged.

Arodenn’s face changes when they mention the document. She calmly asks the librarian to go meet the rest of the people downstairs, and to please close the door behind him. As soon as that’s done, she replies:

“What are you insinuating? That my family is without honour? That we’d break the law to lie about our ancestry? The Blackrose are one of the most powerful families in the kingdoms, and that title of nobility changes NOTHING.”

“We’re not trying to insinuate anything,” Phaldrimi interrupts her. “We’re saying she is. Whether that document is forged or genuine, there’s a thief running around your house: maybe we should do something with that?”

Arodenn takes a deep breath to calm herself: “You’re right. We have to deal with her, and there is still this infestation of shambling corpses. Mother will know what to do… Will you help us?”

Phaldrimi nods, and the party follows Arodenn and Mykellia to the reception hall, where they encounter a surprising scene: while they left a room filled with guests, they come back to Hamaria, the Blackrose matriarch, yelling at her son, who’s lying on the ground because of his injured leg:

“I TOLD YOU THIS WAS A BAD IDEA PEMBLETON! YOU LET CRIMINALS IN MY HOUSE! CRIMINALS! AND THESE UNGRAVED CORPSES, DID YOU INVITE THEM TOO?”

The sight of her two daughters, safe and sound, calms her down some, and the four have an emotional reunion. The PCs, however, quickly realize that Nigel, the father, has disappeared. Remembering his earlier attempt, Yvarge tries to open up the door to the office: locked.

“He bailed as soon as you got out of this room,” Hamaria says. “I married a coward. Maybe that’s why my son INVITES DANGEROUS FOLKS TO ROAM THE HALLS OF-“

Yvarge cuts her off: “Are you talking about the thief? How do you already know about her?”

“Her? Thief? What thief?”

Phaldrimi debriefs her about their encounter with Yllara, and the forged document comes up: “LIES! WHAT KIND OF DISHONOUR ARE YOU TRYING TO BRING UPON MY FAMILY?”

It takes Arodenn’s intervention to calm her mother: they did just save Mykellia, and offer to help.

“No, I was not talking about that thief. The Dragonborn that my STUPID SON INVITED TO MY HOUSE, he let himself into my house. I tried to stop him, but there were no guards with us. That’s when my son said I shouldn’t do anything stupid, because that lizardbrain is ALL MOBBED UP? IN MY HOUSE?”

Braerann brings up the ticking clock to calm Hamaria: you can always get back to that once we stop the criminals and undead that are roaming your home?

Hamaria accepts the PC’s help. They have to convince Mykellia to stay here with her siblings, because she doesn’t see how her being 10 years old means she can’t help catch career criminals. They ask the matriarch where the thief could be if she was looking for those documents: maybe the dragonborn is here for the same reason?

When they got back to the reception hall, there were three goals I wanted to establish: first, that Nigel had left his son and wife during a home invasion; second, I wanted to bring up a decision point between going after Yllara and the undead; third, I wanted them to interact with Hamaria. Therefore, I decided that all of the guests were gone: Kass, Pendleton’ co-host, and Smokes, the dwarven engineer, had both fled when the undead first came in; Medrash the dragonborn had gone to try and help Yllara, who was sent here by his gang; Deka, the merchant who Medrash was protecting, had also left, although I don’t know why yet: that’s okay, I’ll figure it out before next session.

The party follow Hamaria to the third floor: the papers are in her personal office. As she gets to that floor, she stops, goes back down a few steps: “The door to my office is open, and this is the only key,” she says as she shows them the key she wears around her neck.

The party approach the room in question, and Braerann kicks the door open(this time, he does it in one quick blow), and they find Yllara and Medrash, searching frantically through Hamaria’s office.

Medrash: “Braerann, my man!”

Braerann: “We’ll talk after I kill that halfling *expletive*”

Yllara doesn’t take kindly to that threat, and charges Braerann, daggers out. Eliel fires at the halfling, but, for the first time since they got in the manor, misses wildly.

MG (who plays Braerann): I don’t want to block the doorway, can I push the halfling away some?

Me: Well she weighs about 75 pounds, and you have a strength of 18, which is around the level of peak Louis Cyr. Where do you want her to be?

As Braerann gets out of the way, Medrash peppers the party with a fiery breath, but Phaldrimi and Yvarge’s attacks quickly force him to drop his weapon and surrender.

Meanwhile, Braerann has pushed Yllara to the corner of the room. She drops a smoke bomb, dazing the dwarf, and tries to make a run for it. Yvarge intercepts her just as she was about to leave, and she finds herself surrounded again.

After taking multiple blows, she drops another smoke bomb, disengages from the three melee fighters, and tries to run for the stairs.

Me: Eliel, we play turn-by-turn, but in-world, this all happens somewhat simultaneously. You can take your shot on her, but after your turn she’ll be down the stairs. She has 9 hp left.

Eliel takes a shot, and caught Yllara just as she was jumping over the ramp, just strong enough to take her down.

SC: I rolled an even number, so I can take a second shot, right?

Me: Yup, want to make sure she’s dead?

SC: Nope, I’m shooting that dragonborn in the knee, so he can’t be an adventurer like us.

Another really interesting, if somewhat easy, combat. I wanted to offer the PCs a shot at facing Yllara, because the players, mainly Braerann’s, wouldn’t stop talking about what they’d do when they caught her. I’m not sure why they started hating her so much, but I won’t say know to emotional reactions!

I realized just as the battle began, while rolling initiative, that I hadn’t statted out Medrash: oops! However, 13th Age to the rescue: I took the baseline stats for a 1st level opponent. On his first turn, I looked up the Dragonborn’s breath weapon ability: it was a lot weaker than I wanted it to be, so I ad libbed that it would hit 1d3 of the PCs (like actual Dragons). It worked pretty well, especially given that his existence as an opponent lasted a round and a half.

Regarding letting Eliel take that last shot: it’s not according to Hoyle, but I feel like it makes sense, and it was more dramatic that way. I like breaking the rules in the players’ favour early in the campaign: they don’t complain when it swings their way, but they also understand that I will put story ahead of rules.

Finally, I also told her how many hit points Yllara had left. That was done extremely on purpose. Not only did it let them know she could go down on one hit (instant stakes!), it also switched when the reveal happened. If I hadn’t, she would have rolled, told me how much, and then people would have held their breath until I said whether it was enough or not. Now, I told her, and people held their breath until the dice were rolled. They cheered on her action, not on my reaction.

Alright, now that’s enough tapping myself on the back: one thing I really dropped the ball on was describing the undead presence. I should have made them hear screams in the distance as they were climbing the steps; maybe a corpse, a trail of blood, a stack of bones somewhere? Or even better: while they were jumping Yllara and Medrash, I should have had a zombie come out and grab Hamaria. As it is, they kind of forgot about the undead, and that goes against the goal.

As Yllara stumbles to the ground, inert, right in front of Hamaria Blackrose, Medrash falls to the ground, hit from Eliel’s arrow. He has very unkind words to say about that elf who shot him after he dropped his weapons.

While Eliel goes to make sure Yllara is down for good, Braerann starts questioning Medrash: “You should start talking quickly brother. We’re not in a patient mood.”

“I’ll talk to you, and to you alone,” Medrash spits out. “Especially not in front of her,” he adds, pointing to Eliel.

Braerann asks the others to leave, and closes the door. Phaldrimi goes to talk to Hammaria, while Yvarge wraps up some of his wounds.

Medrash tells Braerann that he was sent to the party only to escort Deka: she does business with his gang, and the protection is one of the perks. However, when his boss learned of this party, they decided to send Yllara to get the documents she mentioned: rumours say they’re forged, paid in gold to gain access to some circles. If they had proof of it, they could use the information as leverage, and having a family like the Blackrose in your back pocket is quite an asset.

When the undead showed up, Medrash was afraid Yllara would get caught in the crossfire: if she was killed by zombies and found, that would be a pretty tough blow to the gang.

Braerann asks his old cellmate who that gang is, and he flashes a scar on his forearm in the shape of an hourglass: clearly his gang’s symbol, but Braerann doesn’t recognize it.

He also asks the Dragonborn whether he’d get in trouble because the job failed, which Medrash doubts: he was asked to cause a scene during the party, so the guards would be busy escorting him out, but if the plan failed, that was on Yllara, not him.

“However, if you leave me here with the Blackrose, they’ll hang me.”

“You don’t have to worry about that, friend. That beer they served downstairs was some of that rich people piss water: I wouldn’t let you die on such a low note.”

This was an interesting scene. Again, I had no idea any of this would happen, so I had to ad lib a lot of it. I had only very basic notes on Medrash, and outside of his links to Yllara and Braerann, I knew very little about him. I hadn’t even named his gang, so when Braerann asked, I described the scar, and I was happy that he rolled so poorly when he asked whether he recognized it: now I can take some time to flesh them out a bit.

I really like scenes where PCs can dig into their backstories, but often, the others become disinterested quickly. By tying it to the story at hand, it allowed the other players to learn about Braerann, without taking away from the narrative at hand. It was pretty neat.

It also gives the player a contact they can reach out to further down the line when they need help, which is really important to the games I like to run.

During that time, Phaldrimi takes Hamaria to the side to explain to her that the office was being ransacked, but that they secured it, and that they’ll let her go in as soon as they are done questioning the surviving member of that group. Mostly, he needed her to get away from Yllara’s body while Eliel went through the halfling’s bag.

In addition to some coinage and a small potion, she finds a rune-covered rope, which seems to have been weaved out of mineral material: clearly, this is a magical item. It takes them a bit of time to recognize it as a Rope of Stone, which can turn to stone or back with a command word: great for both climbing and tying up prisoners.

This part I’m less happy about. I’ve said before that I prep pieces of my games, whether situations, combat encounters, or loot, but only key them to locations during the game. Well, in this case, after defeating Yllara, and after 2 full sessions, I felt like they deserved a magic item, something cooler than a rope, but I had… nothing.

First, I felt stupid about not having thought of that before: whatever magic item she had, she would have used during the fight! But also, when I got to the list of magic items I had prepped, there was nothing that would make sense for her to have: no dagger, no light armour, nothing thief-appropriate. I looked through the rulebook quickly, and didn’t find anything to my liking.

I ended up retconning this and sending the players an email saying I had mixed up my notes and she’d have more, so now I have to prep something for her to have, even if she ended up not using it: oh well.

As the PCs let Hamaria go back into her office to see if the document in question is still there, they hear a rumble, and screams from down the stairs.

And that’s how we ended it. I like to finish on a cliffhanger, but this one was pretty undercooked: I just kind of froze up: I wanted to end on a question mark, and couldn’t think of anything else. I had four set piece battles planned, and only one (the one in the library) has happened, so I wanted to get to the next one quickly. Probably will end up using the retcon to flashback to before that 20 mins, and forget about those screams.


I feel a lot better about this session. The first 90% of it was pretty great, even though it wasn’t perfect and I felt like I dropped the ball of establishing the atmosphere, and keeping the roaming undead in the players’ mind. I usually leave myself notes of stuff like that on my GM screen, but with online play, I don’t use a GM screen: I’ll have to find an alternative.

The last 20 mins though, between the disappointing loot and boring cliffhanger, was pretty bad. Oh well, a bad 20 minutes over a 3h session is a pretty good average, especially considering how critical I was of the first session.

Lifehack the complexity budget!

When designing a game, the balance between depth and weight is a tricky one. Every system, element, or even just rule, you add to a game brings strategy, tactics, balance, but also complexity. Fun : weight ratio, which many prefer to think of as the complexity budget, is an important aspect of game design.

Here’s the thing: there’s a lifehack to this. I have a tool to share with you which can add a lot of depth for minimal complexity, in an almost “too-good-to-be-true” infomercial kind of way.

That thing is Space. More specifically, spatial relations. Our brains think spatially, and a lot of these things are so ingrained in us that it’s harder to put in words than to actually interact with.

Think of the tiles in Isle of Skye: it takes a second of looking at it to parse all that it contains, not only the scrolls, buildings and barrels, but also the land types, roads, and their position on the tile. If these were cards in a tableau building game, no mechanism could make up for that depth.

Now, of course, tile laying games are built around that spatial aspect, and not every game can be about tile laying, or route building, or map skirmish. Yet, even game types which are not intrinsically spatial can be enriched, at no extra complexity, by leaning into our brains’ innate spatial understanding.

Not only good for tiles

Early in With a Smile & a Gun‘s development, you would draft a die, and place influence in the district of that value: 6 districts, each associated with a number. It was easy to grasp, but a bit boring, a bit stale.

I added a lot of strategic depth to the game by making each die value affect two districts, and each district be affected by two values (using my favorite tool, the power of combinations):

By using adjacency, players grasped the relationships just as easily as they did the first version. The decision were more interesting, because of the depth this added to the game, but players didn’t have to spend more cognitive bandwidth on this system.

Version 3, the one the final game still uses, adds a lot more depth without much weight:

GIF by the amazing Jon Merchant

Now your die moves your meeple around the city, and you place cubes in the row/column in front of it. In addition to the added thematic aspect of moving your meeple, here’s all of the strategic difference this adds:

  • You affect 3 districts instead of 2: the most obvious one, but a pretty big impact on depth;
  • Relative numbers matter, not absolutes: going to a spot might require a 2 for me, but a 4 for you, which means I can keep you from going without having to go myself;
  • Distance matters: You place 3, 2, and 1 cube, starting from your meeple, making the choices regarding the area control more granular, more dynamic;
  • The possible combinations are clear: not every combination of 3 districts is possible, and that is clear to every player, even on their first game.

Not only did this system add the thematic resonance of the movement, and all of these interesting levels to the game, but by and large, players found this version simpler to grok than the first two. Of course, other effects come into play, but still: this added a LOT of depth, for virtually no complexity.

Even more intrinsic

I’ve brought this up in one of the designer diaries for the game, but it bears repeating here: there are fundamental differences between the corner districts, the side districts, and the central one, simply based on spatial aspects.

First, the 3/2/1 placement mechanism means that while a side district can receive 3, 2, or 1 cube, depending on where you’re hitting it from, corners can only get 3 or 1, and the center only gets cubes by 2s. It affects how swingy the majority for those districts are.

Second, the distance between two spots that affect a given district vary. The 4 spots to influence the central district are exactly 3 spaces apart. However, after you pass a corner, it can take a while before you get back to placing on it, especially if you need to place 3 cubes.

Now, these aren’t large differences, but they’re still there. What’s more, I didn’t even design them in: it’s just inherent to the spatial design of it. It took me a bit of time to even realize it was the case.

Remember when we were talking about depth : weight ratio? I added depth to my game without meaning to. Isn’t that some magical, snake oil kinda tool!

Other examples

Tzolk’in famously uses these large, interconnected gears to represent the passage of time. In addition to the gimmick and eye-catching aspect of the gears, this entire system would have been so much harder to represent without a spatial aspect.

Final game board with gears and stickers.
Image from publisher

Pandemic is one of many examples of games which feature movement on a map, and you could say that’s an inherently spatial game and I’ve broken my own premise. However, I think it’s worth pointing out how the links between cities naturally create different experiences based on which cities are targetted at setup: 3 cubes on Santiago, with its single path out, is not the same as on Baghdad, with its 5 neighbours, or Madrid, which also has 5 neighbors, but 2 of which are of different colours. If the map didn’t include those spatial oddities, the setup variety would not be as meaningful.

Pandemic, Z-Man Games, 2013 – game board
Image from publisher

Battle Line (also known as Schotten Totten) is, to put it simply, a mix of War and Poker, where the two players play cards in front of a line of 9 flags, trying to make a better poker hand than their opponent. To win, you must either gain 5 of the 9 flags, or 3 adjacent ones. That extra winning condition adds a lot of tension, makes some sites more important, makes the ends of the line feel different from the middle, and all of that at no extra cognitive load.

uncaptioned image
Picture by @BoardGameGeek

Think about the design(s) you’re working on right now: is there a part of your game that you could improve (either by simplifying without making less engaging, or by enriching it at low complexity costs), simply by presenting it spatially?