On All Fronts #1: The Party

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

I usually start my campaigns in media res. I start players right as they open the door leading to the big boss of their first adventure, or just as tempers start running hot in a negotiation, or as their home town is attacked by goblins. Anything to hit the ground running, so that when we get to the first talking scene, players know each other some, and have something to talk about. Especially with a new group, I find it makes such a difference.

All this to say I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t this time. I did the exact opposite, and it showed. I was super nervous and out of my depth, and stuff wasn’t working the way I had thought it would. Part of it was poor design of the starting scene, part of it was the rust of not having run in years, and part of it (a huge part if I’m being honest) was technical difficulties running on Roll20.

Phaldrimi had a vivid dream of tentacled horrors in a cavern under a field of black roses, a message from her patron. As she left the inn she was staying at, she heard of a soirée being held at the Blackrose Estate: she had to get invited.

Braeran ran away from the corpses of his friends, scared for his life. Whoever had hit them was probably looking for him, too. When he got to New Port, famished, tired, he ran into Medrash, a Dragonborn he had befriended in the prisons of Underhome. Medrash had a bodyguard gig, protecting a merchant at a bougie party that night: maybe Braeran could get himself a job?

After one of his best performances in the arena, Yvarge went to his local drinking spot. It wasn’t rare for fans to recognize him and sit with him for the night, but they were never as well dressed as these two, especially in a tavern like this one. “That was quite a show,” the gnome led. “You’re such a talented swordsman, would you mind coming for a private show at this little event we’re organizing?” The half-elf continued: “My sister is training to become a fighter, maybe you could show her a few tricks?” Yvarge missed the snarky smiles they exchanged at that idea.

Eliel had known for a while that one of her fathers’ diaries was held in the Blackrose’s private exhibit of historical curios, but she couldn’t believe it when she heard they were holding a reception in their New Port estate, exactly where the memoir would be. Plus, rich people are so careless when it comes to their possessions: how hard would it be to get her hands on an invite?

I had decided that the first scenario would take place in a high society soirée, a way for the players to meet influential NPCs and get some contacts from the get-go. I asked the players if they wanted to meet there, or already know each other: that was, retrospectively, a mistake. I worked with each of them to have a reason to get to the party, and something to do once they got there, but even that wasn’t enough to get them actively engaging. I’m still not sure whether the idea or the execution is to blame, but I regret not starting in media res, like I usually do.

As the PCs get to the Blackrose Estate, they are escorted to the reception hall, which contains about a dozen people: 3 waiters, of various age and ancestry; 4 guards, two next to each door; a middle-aged dwarf, smoking on the balcony; a dragonborn in leather armour, leaning on the wall next to the bar; two women, a half-elf in pristine armour, and a human dressed more appropriately for this setting, in a hushed tone argument; an old lady and a young-looking elf, dressed in matching red attire, looking over the scene; right next to the door, the hosts, a gnome lady with a crown of roses, and a half-elf dressed in the eclectic fashion of those who were born rich, his colourful hair in a long rainbow braid.

The Guest List

Phaldrimi puts her plan in motion: she has studied just enough botany to pretend to be able to grow black roses, and is hoping to pitch that idea to the matriarch of the Blackrose family. She knows she won’t be able to follow through, but all she needs is to get her foot in the door, get to the basement, and find the horrors she was warned about.

She chats with Pendleton, the host of the reception, the one who invited her, and he introduces her to his father, Nigel, who seems on edge and not very receptive.

During that time, Eliel walks around, trying to see if she can find the diary she’s looking for. The reception includes a charity auction, and the memoirs are on one of the displays. Given her superhuman dexterity and her experience with stealth, she easily pockets the item without anyone noticing.

Yvarge and Braeran quietly hang out at the bar, turning down anyone who tries to chat them up.

Again, I’m not super happy with how that turned up. The charity auction was meant to give the players stuff to talk about, and including the book in there made sense: however, it also meant Eliel’s objective was one die roll away, and then she had nothing to do. Yvarge and Braerann’s objectives were both related to others NPCs, and they both took a very passive role.

Phaldrimi got into it though. I felt bad for the player, but I could feel that I was losing the rest of the room. We had also started late because of technical issues, and I didn’t want the entire first session to be one of the PCs talking without anyone else being involved, so I cut her off early. I’m not happy about it, but early in a campaign I felt like hooking everyone was more important.

Also, describing it as a party, but having 8 only guests, is a bit of a stretch. I wanted to keep the number of NPCs manageable, but in retrospect, it’s… kinda weird.

Suddenly, the door on the northern wall breaks down: the guard on the left is torn down by two shambling corpses, tearing down his flesh, while the one on the right gets a spear through the neck.

Coming through that door are a small troop of undead: a handful of animated skeletons in age old armour; a few zombies, busy feasting on that guard; a demonic-looking skeleton, shard of bone growing all over its body; and finally, their leader, wearing black plate armour and a tattered cloak, wielding a stone-tipped spear covered in chains, a thin layer of flesh and hair over its horned skull.

Plus, you know, skeletons and zombies.

It seems annoyed at the party they’ve just interrupted: “Ugh, take care of these, find it, and bring it back to the urn,” it commands as it leaves.

Between the PCs, the guards, and the other fighting guests, the undead are defeated without further casualties, but Pendleton, the organizer of the soiree, is seriously wounded when the Boneshard skeleton throws one of its overgrown spikes into his leg.

So while I’m not happy about the timing of it, I feel like this interruption worked really well. The PCs reacted with surprise to this change of event, but they all turned on their hero mode. Yvarge even improvised that he hadn’t brought a weapon, and so intimidated one of the guards into giving him theirs. Overall, it led to great moments. It was an easy encounter, but the goal was not to challenge as much as to give everyone a little bit of experience with 13th Age rules: of course, the d20 stuff, but the skeletons are mooks, and zombies in 13th Age go down to 0hp if they receive a critical hit: “Headshot”, it’s called, and I love the flavour of it.

So in case that wasn’t clear, the two guards who got taken down on the undead’s entrance, that was handled 100% narratively: no die roll, and it probably respects none of the rules. It just made for an awesome entrance, a complete change of pace. Also, letting the Graveknight walk away was so it could be used later rather in the first encounter, of course. If I had made it participate in the fight against the PCs, they probably would have found it unfair that I take it away before they can kill it, but since it all happened in the “cutscene”, no one batted an eye, no one went “can I shoot it before it leaves?”

The Graveknight is a completely invented monster. I wanted an undead that was intelligent enough to be the leader of this troop, but also not too high level, and those… are hard to come by. Making the stat block took less than 5 minutes (because I reskinned an existing monster, more on that later), but finding a picture that was right took… a long time.

The Boneshard skeleton is my version of the skeleton archer. I’ve always found skeleton archers really dumb, for some reason. It might just be me, but bows have always looked to require more coordination and intelligence than I imagine mindless creatures having. Therefore, I changed it to this aberration, a skeleton that is clearly not human, growing ever more monstrous. The name is straight out of 4E D&D, but otherwise it is a standard Skeleton Archer, with a little nasty special: on a ranged attack hit, if its natural roll is higher than the target’s Dexterity score, the target is stuck (save ends). Narratively, the shard of bone sticks to the floor or wall.

I really like the 13th Age mechanism of “If Natural roll > X”, but like it even more when it’s compared to an ability score rather than an arbitrary number. A lot of 3rd party creators use this, and I’ve stolen it for a lot of things. It’s elegant, it makes the ability scores matter, it makes characters vulnerable to different things… it rules.

While most NPCs react to the injured host, to the lost guards, and to the surprise of what just happened, two -the dwarf and gnome- are nowhere to be found, having fled the scene.

Braeran finds Medrash more nervous than he usually is: they have already run into a group of skeletons during their time together in labour camps, and he barely reacted. He does not, however, address it.

While Mrs. Blackrose goes to tend to her son’s injury, Mr. Blackrose hastily goes for his office. Yvarge tries to follow him, to question why he’d leave his son bleeding out on the floor to go do paperwork, but Nigel will have none of it: “You are a welcome guest, but I will not let you keep me from moving around freely in my own home.” When Nigel tries to enter the office, Yvarge follows him, physically keeping him from closing the door. Nigel gives up, pretends to get bandages (fooling no one), and goes back to the common room, locking his office door.

After a few minutes of panic, of wondering what had just happened, Arodenn, the oldest child and captain of the guard, gasps: “Mykellia! My sister is alone in her bedroom!”

She picks up her sword, and runs out the room. The PCs quickly follow her, go up a flight of stairs to get to a large common area. A door is ajar, leading to a child’s bedroom, showing clear signs of struggle, furniture turned upside down, a chair broken down.

The scene is too much for her, and Arodenn falls to her knees, crying.

After the combat encounter, I expected the PCs to try and find the Graveknight, to see if other undead were roaming around the hall. I hoped they’d try and ask what “find it” could refer to, or even “return to the urn”. Nothing.

To be clear, I take 100% of the blame:. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s private property; maybe they’re too awkward together for anyone to take the lead; maybe they just thought it was all over. I think maybe I just made enough stuff happen in this room that it suggested that was the place to be, but not enough for anything to come of it? Medrash being nervous, Nigel trying to excuse himself, the guests who had fled… It was probably too much for them to feel like it was okay to leave? I was hoping to foreshadow stuff happening later by making some of the NPCs look suspicious, but foreshadowing only works if the PCs can’t handle it right now.

So I lit a fire under their butt. If you’re not going anywhere, choo choo, the train is coming to the station.

As their guide seems unavailable, Braeran and Yvarge take it upon themselves to explore the surroundings: they take a corridor, and find a balcony overseeing a laughably oversized ballroom: on the level below, three guards and three members of the staff are having a heated discussion, but are too far away for the PCs to learn more.

During that time, Eliel opens a different door, and finds the library. Between the bookshelves, she sees zombies, roaming aimlessly, but she can also hear sounds of shuffling from deeper in the L-shaped room. Phaldrimi urges her to close the door and wait for the others, but Eliel spots, hidden behind one of the shelves, in a corner, a halfling, in leather armour, a dagger in each hand, hiding from the undead.

Ignoring Phaldrimi’s plea, Eliel decides to go save the halfling, and climbs atop the bookshelf without grabbing the zombie’s attention –thanks to some really, really high die rolls.

First, I love when players split the party. Eliel’s player, who has not played TTRPGs before, does not know the old adage about not doing it, and I’m so happy about that: being able to go back and forth like this makes for such an interesting pacing.

Second, I have to explain how I prep adventures: after trying a lot of different methods, I now prep both a map and a list of potential scenes and encounters, but don’t key those encounters to specific locations. Sometimes, I even switch the map around: like Schrödinger’s cat, until the door is open, the room beyond is both the library, the kitchen, and the secret altar to Asmodeus, and none of these things. Based on pacing, time, and rule of cool, I then decide what’s in a room as late in the process as I can get away with.

In this case, I had planned a scene where the PCs would walk into a thief, who had taken the reception as an opportunity for robbing the mansion, and I had planned a scene where the PCs would find innocent people trapped in an undead-filled room, but I had meant them to be separate. When Eliel opened the door, I described the undead, and then saw the time: we didn’t have time for another combat encounter, so whatever was in the room would have to wait until next session. I also didn’t want a repeat of the fight we had had a bit earlier, just more basic enemies in a different room. That’s when I decided to make this the “people trapped behind undead” scene: it would make the encounter feel different, but also make for a great cliffhanger.

However, I wanted the other two to find Mykellia before the end of the session: I wanted them to have a “win” on this first session, a plot hook they had closed, however small. Two back-to-back “save people” scenes weren’t as interesting. That’s why I merged it with the halfling scene.

Elsewhere, Braeran and Yvarge find the guest section of the mansion, and start opening doors, looking for people.

Me: “Which one of you opens this specific door?”

KJ (Yvarge’s player): “Braeran!”

MG: *chuckles* sure

Me: “Does… *die rolls* 12 hit your AC?”

MG: “Of course not, this is dwarven made armour, not some of that cheap stuff humans make! AC of 12?” *snorts derisively*

As Braeran opens one of the doors, he dodges a rapier, grabs the attacker by the wrist, and right before his fighting reflexes kick in, realizes he’s about to tackle a 10 year old half-elven girl.

“LET ME GO! MY MOTHER WILL HAVE YOU HUNG!”

KJ: “Oh, guess we found the last rich kid!”

Clearly shaken by the undead invading her home, Mykellia Blackrose lets go of the highborn attitude very quickly: “Is my sister okay?”, she asks the dwarf.

“Yes, don’t worry. We’ll take you back to her.”

This scene was just fun. I’m pretty happy with the way it went, with giving the players a feel good, hero moment on their first session. It did feel a bit rushed, I should have let the interaction run a little bit longer, made her more memorable, make them savour the moment more. It’s the kind of stuff I love as a player, but when I GM, it often feels too awkward: what if players don’t like it? What if they think me playing a 10 year old girl is creepy?

First session, don’t be too hard on yourself.

In the library, Eliel has crawled to the edge, where she sees the halfling, ready to pounce.

SC: Can I get her to look at me without making noise?

Me: How could you do that?

SC: I don’t know… I’ll drop something on her head. Something small enough not to hurt her. A coin!

Me: I mean… sure. You can definitely drop a coin on her head, but doing so without making noise would be pretty damn hard.

SC: Natural 20, +10, so that’s… 30.

Me: *blink blink* So the halfling looks up at you…

Eliel offers the halfling her hand, helps her climb to the top of the shelf, and they climb down on the other side. As soon as her feet touch the floor, the halfling’s hands go back to her daggers. She doesn’t draw them, but she’s ready for action.

As Braeran and Yvarge get back to the common area, Phaldrimi closes the library’s door quietly, just in time to block the sound of the two half-elven sisters who run into each other’s arms.

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

That was pretty cool. Realistic? No, definitely not. Awesome? FOR SURE.

And that’s what I mean when I say 13th Age focuses on exactly the kind of games I like to run: moments like these. It’s not realistic, but it’s believable enough to break immersion, and cinematic enough to be interesting.


Overall, I think this session was a C+. It worked, there were a few cool moments and everyone was happy with it and looking forward to the next one. That being said, I’m not super happy with myself: a lot of missed opportunities, a lot of decisions I wish I had done differently. Nothing game breaking, nothing with long term impacts, just wish it had started more smoothly.

Afterwards, KJ commented in private that I looked really nervous. Of the four players, he’s the one I’ve known for the longest. I think between the rust and technical difficulties, I felt out of control and unprepared.

Over time, I’ll get back into my rhythm.

On All Fronts: Prologue

This is the first Campaign Diary for my 13th Age campaign On All Fronts. This will cover everything prior to the first session.

Quickly: 13th Age is a tabletop RPG based on the d20 system. I like to describe it as D&D, but better. Here is a Twitter thread about why it’s better. I also talk about Icons a lot: Icons are a 13th Age concept, and are the 13 movers-and-shakers in the campaign world.

Narrative will be boxed and italicized, the rest is my thoughts and self-assessment of my GMing.


After running 2-3 times a week in my 20s, I took an RPG hiatus when my first daughter was born, and then got into board games. Over the past 6 years, I’ve played about a dozen sessions of D&D, 13th Age, FATE, and Dragon Age RPG, but nothing serious. I recently got the itch again, and made the jump.

My main love is with GMing, and by reaching out to former players, it was pretty easy to assemble a roster of 4 (anonymized, even though it’s probably unnecessary, but just in case):

  • SL, an experienced D&D player since the early days of the hobby, and still plays weekly, but has never tried 13th Age before;
  • KJ, another experienced D&D player who still plays in a regular group, and who has a handful of sessions experience with 13th Age;
  • MG, who used to play D&D a long time ago, but hasn’t touched TTRPGs in over 10 years;
  • SC, who has never played TTRPGs, but has always wanted to.

After we agreed on the game and a schedule, I offered them four campaign options: either a “dungeon of the week” sort of affair, or one of three long-term themes. The idea is not to railroad them, but to decide what the focus of the game will be. Each narrative was also focused on one of the three pillars of TTRPGs (or, at least, the games I run): Combat/Action; Politics / Intrigue; Mystery / Exploration. Here are the suggestions I made:

  • The Fourteenth: Scholars, sages, wizards and priests all agree: the 13 Icons are as central to the balance of this world as the seasons or the cycle of water. What happens when a group of adventurer find a fourteenth icon? Is all of the existing research false, or is one of the established Icons an impostor? (Focus on Mystery / Exploration, secondary Politics / Intrigue)
  • Coup d’État: The Great Kingdom has many enemies, and only the Ivory King’s masterful diplomacy holds it together, with 7 of the 12 other Icons on his side. What happens when one of these allies wants to take over? (Focus on Politics / Intrigue, secondary Combat / Action)
  • On All Fronts: While the King has his hands full managing his allies’ loyalty, external threats are piling up. 4 Icons are threatening to tear down the Kingdom, and you’ll have to take the fight to them. (Focus on Combat / Action, secondary Politics / Intrigue).
  • Living Dungeons: All across Hadriel, there are reports of gates appearing, seemingly out of thin air, leading to dangerous complexes, filled with monsters and traps, but also treasures and glory. (Low story, light-hearted dungeon-crawling fun).

As you’ve read above, they decided to go with On All Fronts. I would have liked to run any 4 of them (if I’m being honest, mostly the first 3), but this thread is a very interesting one. I have quite a few ideas to represent these Fronts, using, for example, progress clocks like in Blades in the Dark and Dungeon World fronts.

First, I want to talk about the number 4: why 4 threats? Here’s my process:

  1. One threat makes it about attacking them, not defending the Kingdom. It’s also very straightforward, and will probably get repetitive.
  2. Two threats is suddenly more interesting. The PCs will probably have to alternate targets, and I can make the world seem like a living place because the Icon they won’t go after will make progress.
  3. With 3 threats, we add a few interesting aspects: the PCs can’t just alternate, they have to get intel about each faction’s progress to know which ones are the most urgent; they’ll probably need to get allies to handle some of the pressing needs, which will also allow them some choice about what they do and what they leave for others; it also means that the villains will make some progress at some point, without the PCs feeling powerless: there are just too many balls to juggle.

So why 4 then? 3 sounds pretty rad on its own! To be honest, it might have been a mistake. I was thinking about allies, and using allies to hit the enemy, and then had this idea: what if the PCs manage to infiltrate one of the villain’s advisors, and pushes two of the Icons into confrontation. I mean, they’re villains, and while their goals all threaten the Kingdom, they’re still quite incompatible. I thought that, with 4 villains, I could overwhelm the players early on, and when they either thought of that option, or where presented with it, they’d jump on it. We’ll see how that works…

Maybe you caught that in the description of the scenarios, but I have made my own “pantheon” of Icons, based on the ones presented in the core rulebook, but less generic. This is not a knock on the game’s design: I think like they’re meant to be that generic, exactly for this reason.

With that in mind, the four villainous Icons are:

  • The Wall Breaker, Queen of Giantkind, who wants to lead her people out of the frozen wastelands they’re stuck in;
  • The Untamed One, Wildness personified, who sees civilization as a threat to the natural order;
  • The Bone Weaver, former King and current ruler of the undead;
  • The Herald of Hunger, former protector of the Kingdom, corrupted by one of the Demons he slayed to serve dark masters.

With that information, the players created their characters:

  • Phaldrimi (SL), a Suntouched Paladin: A hermit who believes she is a divine agent, as she hears a constant voice, which she believes to be from a god or long lost Icon;
  • Eliel (SC), a Wood Elf Ranger: Daughter of a famed historian, she used to be a poet, but when her father passed, she instead became an Assassin;
  • Yvarge (KJ), a Halfling Barbarian: Born in a Koru tribe (communities established on the backs of gargantuan behemoths), he eventually became a gladiator;
  • Braeran (MG), a Dwarven Fighter: Adopted into a crime family, he had to do a brief stint in prison, and came out to find his old gang murdered.

What happens then? Tune in next week (probably tomorrow actually), on the next episode of JV’s Campaign Diary of On All Fronts!

The Power of Combinations

Modern board games are about choices, difficult choices. Where old games gave you a roll of the dice or a card draw, modern games give you a decision to make, putting you in the driver’s seat, and that’s where most of the fun of board games comes from: meaningful but difficult decisions.

I’ve talked in an earlier post about how to make those choices meaningful in a more theoretical, academic way. I’ve talked about four aspects to consider: opacity, comparability, uncertainty, and interchangeability. I’ve also mentioned that choices, while they are at the core of what makes games interesting, also take time. Today, I’m here to share with you a more practical tip to designing interesting decisions without breaking a game’s pace, and probably my go-to design tool: combinations.

First, I guess I should offer a definition: combinations are what happens when you put two things together. Rather than offering your players a display of 5 cards, and telling them to draw 2, you make 3 pairs of cards, and tell them to choose a pair.

There are a few interesting things that happen when you combine decisions:

  • The game speeds up: Like I said above, a decision takes time. By combining 2 decisions into one, you half the number of decisions players have to make.
  • The choices are harder to compare: If I need a wood, could use clay, but already have a million stones, would I rather take a wood and a stone, or two clays? The decisions instantly become more interesting.
  • It makes you work on multiple fronts: It is a pretty boring game where you just focus on one plan, complete it, then go to the next. It’s a lot more interesting to push your players into juggling multiple different tasks. Combinations lead to players piling up “kickers”, stuff that they got as bonuses for the things they were trying to do, and eventually, they’ll figure out what to do with them!
  • Sometimes, there’s a perfect storm: Sometimes, the two things you need just so happen to be paired together! Sure, it defeats the purpose of the “difficult decision”, but if it happens only a few times a game, it is a great feel-good moment!

Combinations are already often used in games, in ways we’ve come to take for granted. For example, in worker placement or card drafting games, taking an action or card does not only affect you, but also limits what your opponents can do; in many Euros, you build buildings that give you points and a special ability; in rondel games, the space you go to matters, but so do the ones you skip over.

These are examples of basic combinations: we take them for granted because, most of the time, one of them is very secondary. Most of the time, when I play Le Havre, I’ll choose my action based on what I need, and if it blocks you, that’s just icing on the cake. It’s solid design, but we can still take it further.

One of the games which best represents this, to me, is Sentient, an underappreciated game by J. Alex Kevern. In Sentient, you place workers on a display which (a) determines the card you’ll draft, and (b) counts for the majority scoring for the tiles in between each card.

Investors and bots
Picture from BGG user Zedsdead

What makes this mechanism great is that, sometimes, there’s a card you really need, and sometimes, there’s a tile you really need: either of them could make the scale tip. There so rarely is a tableau where none of the possibilities fulfill one of your goal, and sometimes the stars align, and the perfect choice comes up, and you get to stand up and cackle fiendishly as you place your meeple at that perfect spot. Maybe your opponents will even give you a standing ovation.

And isn’t that why we play games?

Designer Diary #3: The Nuts and Bolts

This post is Part 3 of a Designer Diary for With a Smile & a Gun, initially posted during the Kickstarter campaign! In this section, I talk about the mechanical evolution of the game, and the thought process behind it. There is some overlap between this post and the “5 Lessons from” post from early January, 2020, but I think they still stand on their own.

Picture from Eric Yurko

With a Smile & a Gun’s core conceit, as I said in the first post, didn’t change since the first draft of the game. Just to recap, that core is:

  • Dice drafting: draft a die for your movement around a 3×3 grid, and a die for your action;
  • Grid: After moving, you affect all districts in the row/column facing you;
  • Area control: Most cubes in a district is how you get points;
  • Laying low: Actions for higher values are stronger, but having a lower action sum than your opponent gives you a bonus
  • Shared enemy: As 2-player area majority tends to lack competition, there’s a 3rd faction, which both players can affect, but not control, and both compete with;
  • Leftover die: to make sure the last player has a decision to make, the leftover die as an effect on the game.

There has been a lot of small tweaks, of course, but there are three sections of the game which have seen dramatic changes since that first draft, and those are what I want to discuss in this post: the scoring system, the effect of the leftover die, and how the area control works.

Scoring
The scoring is without a doubt what took most of my time throughout the development of this game. I wanted to have a system that made the value of each district different, but also dynamic. I didn’t want every district to be the same, because then the whole concept of “affect a whole row” loses its meaning, but I also wanted to make sure that sometimes, a District was just a must-win, where you didn’t mind affecting Districts you wouldn’t care about if you could get that one. I also wanted to make sure that sometimes, second place would be just as good as first, and other times, it was first or bust.

I tried a lot of different things, and most of them fell short, but the one recurring theme is definitely related to complexity. Designers often talk about complexity budget, basically pushing you to ask, with every rule that you add, whether its impact to the quality of the game is worth its complexity. What I learned in developing With a Smile & a Gun’s scoring system is that you should spend as much of your complexity budget where the actual hook of the game is.

I tried a lot of very complex things to make the scoring system more interesting, but the truth is, no one is playing this game for its scoring system: the interesting part is in the dice selection, in what you’re leaving for your opponent and for the shadow. The scoring system, as any good supporting actor, is there to make the dice drafting shine. To do that, it needs to be as simple as possible, so that players can easily spot which districts are worth a lot, which districts are must haves, which districts are of little interest.

A simpler scoring system also means that most districts are scored very quickly, because choosing between 5 and 2 points is a lot easier than choosing between a set collection item and a majority tile. Decisions are nice, but they take time, and when the scoring phase takes as long as the action phase, the game’s pace suffers. In the final version, most rounds will have 7 instant evaluations, but 1 or 2 interesting choices. Not only is that quicker, but the fact that these moments are rarer means they are much more special, more tense, and it becomes interesting for both the player choosing and their opponent.

Grid
Up until quite recently, players would add a single cube to every District in the row facing them, rather than the current 3/2/1. This might seem like one of the secondary changes in that tweak-level, but it’s one of those small things that had a big impact on the way the game evolves:

  1. Come backs in majorities are now possible: before, if you were down 2 cubes, it was almost impossible to get back on top, and placing a cube there felt like a waste. It made the initial neutral cubes feel like a mountain to climb, rather than just an obstacle. It makes the game so much more dynamic, because it takes a lot of effort for a majority to be 100% safe. More dynamic also means less time spent calculating every cube, which means a quicker pace!
  2. Where you land is more important: Before, there were 4 ways to affect each district, and each of them were of similar value. Choosing a die was about which combination of districts you wanted to hit, not about prioritizing them. Now, sometimes its about hitting two districts in one move, sometimes its about dropping 3 in a specific districts, and that adds a lot of depth to the game. Plus, sometimes a die gets you to do both in one swoop!
  3. Districts are inherently different: When you added a cube to every district, the board was very flat: every space linked to three Districts, each District was linked to four spaces, and they all were very similar. Now, the Central district always gets two cubes; Corners can get 3 or 1, and the spaces to place 3 cubes are adjacent to one another; Sides can be hit by 3, 2, or 1, but no back-to-back numbers. It’s minor, and most people would say I’m stretching, but over time you treat them differently. It’s also the reason why I added the 3rd control token to the Central district, to put that difference on display.
Picture from Eric Yurko

The Shadow
This one is a mixture of two things I’ve been toying with throughout the game’s development: one was the leftover die, and the other a desire for replayability.

I have a tendency to hyperfocus on games, and play them very frequently in a short window of time, then forget about them for a bit. That’s even more true for 2-player games: in the first 3 months after it came out, I played 7 Wonders Duel 27 times, and to be very frank, I grew kinda sick of it. That happens with a lot of 2-player games for me, mainly because they often end up happening against the same opponent, and can often get stale.

I knew that for a game like With a Smile & a Gun, I wanted a variable setup which would allow some mechanical difference from one game to the next, so that after a game, you could go “hey, let’s try again with this one”. I tried a lot of different things, from changing the players’ action lists, to special action cards, to an event deck, even making one of the District different from one game to the next.

On the other hand, I also had that leftover die, which for the longest time went to the “Police Chief”. It made sense to me that the neutral character would, just like the players, use a die to move a meeple around the city and place dice. Therefore, the Police Chief used the final dice, moved around and placed more Police cubes. Usually, players would forget about the Chief, and either wrap up a round without activating it, or would think of it, move it, and make everyone angry because you hadn’t included it in your calculations.

I’m not exactly sure when those two wires ended up connecting, but at some point they did. Gone was the Police Chief, and his annoying blue cubes everywhere, and in came the Shadow, with an effect that changed from game to game. Still moved around, and affected the district in front of them, but now its effect is different with every play.


And that is the final entry of the With a Smile & a Gun designer diary! Thank you so much for your interest in its development, and feel free to post any comment and question you have!

Designer Diary #2: The Setting

This post is Part 2 of a Designer Diary for With a Smile & a Gun, currently on Kickstarter! In this section, I talk about the thematic evolution of the game, and the thought process behind it.

Once I started work on what would become this game, the mechanisms had created some requirements for the theme:
• I needed a setting that would support and suggest the theme of intrigue and underhandedness;
• I needed the players to have a third entity to compete with, but one which worked under different rules and therefore couldn’t just be a third of whatever role the players would fill;
• I needed a thematic explanation for the bonus of the player who took the lowest sum of action dice.

The first theme I went for was the discovery of Atlantis: the players were rival researchers, trying to be known as the world’s leading expert, and would stop at nothing to discredit their opponent. There was also a capitalist mogul who had sent a ship to find those relics, and that acted as the third player.

That theme didn’t really last. It only took a few tests before I realized how clunky it made everything, and as much as I liked the more original theme, I defaulted to a gangster theme—which checked all the boxes, but was a bit bland—, covered everything in GTA screencaps, and told myself I’d figure theme out later.

I developed the game around that gangster theme: the police as the third player, the thematic explanation for needing to lay low, the brawn-vs-brain decisions. I always saw it as a placeholder though. I wanted to avoid making yet another game about generic organized crime: while I was working on this game, three Godfather-themed games came out, and I wanted my game to stand out. If I could set the game anywhere, why not go for a more unique theme?

Every time I’d try out a new theme though, it added expectations that I never intended to meet: I made the game about a mutiny on a pirate ship, and people asked “when do we go out and plunder?”; I made it about sorcerers and people asked “why can’t I just shoot fireballs at them; modern politics led to “when do we get to the debate?”; Caesar’s assassination to “what if people stay loyal to the Emperor?”

By then, what I realized is that a game’s theme is not just about fitting the game’s mechanisms, but also setting up what the players expect to do. Sure, the game is a perfect representation of a mutiny, but this is not the game people want when they hear a title about pirates. However, it all makes so much sense when you apply it to a game about gangsters—which, of course it does, that’s the theme I developed the game around!

I think that, rationally, I knew the gangster theme was the way to go, but I couldn’t convince myself it was the right call, kind of like when you know you should go to bed but instead browse Netflix until 3 am. That is, until I found the Al Capone quote. I don’t remember exactly how I fell on it, but it was love at first sight:

“You can get pretty far in life with a smile, but you can get a helluva lot farther with a smile and a gun.”

I love this line, but I also thought it was such a perfect representation of the game’s tone: it starts all nice and kind-hearted, but then gets darker. The abrupt change of direction makes it funny, not laugh-out-loud funny, but the kind of funny where you smile and exhale from your nose. There’s a threat in that sentence, but there’s also the smile. It’s the bravado of those who know they’re in control of the situation.

That was the time where I committed to the mobster theme. If the theme wasn’t the most unique, I could find an art style that would make the game stand out.

That was last December. Over the holiday period, I was at my parents’ house, scrolling through Twitter, and I fell on this tweet:

external image

That barn illustration blew me away. Black-and-white, the cross-hatching, the pop of colour, the atmosphere that was somehow both peaceful and spooky. I wanted to see more of that art. I wanted my game to take place in this universe, in this palette. I contacted Justin that day, and I was overwhelmed with joy when he accepted to join the project.

And just like his Christmas cards, the game devolved into a spooky flavour. He is who he is.

I grew up on D&D and Lord of the Rings, and I’ve started loving those fantastical aspects into non-medieval settings, be it Westerns like in the Dark Tower, modern times like in Dresden Files, or sci-fi stuff like in Shadowrun. Fantasy Noir sounded like a fascinating universe, and Justin rolled with it.

The fantastical aspect is subtle: I don’t with to overshadow the noir. I don’t want to fall into creating expectations I can’t meet again: if you’re looking, you’ll see the easter eggs. You’ll see the signs.

And when the surprise happens, you’ll think “oh, I should have seen that one coming”.

In the next entry, I’ll talk about the mechanical evolution, the real nuts and bolts stuff. Again, hopefully a few of those lessons I learned throughout the development will be helpful to others.

If this game sounds interesting, you can go look it up at withasmileandagun.com

Designer Diary #1: The Spark

This is the first entry in my Designer Diary series for With a Smile & a Gun, coming to Kickstarter on July 14th, 2020. In this installment, I talk about the inspiration for the game, and core of the game, and how I filled it out to a workable mechanical framework.

Two-player games were my entry point into the board gaming hobby and, fwo-player games were my entry point into the board gaming hobby and, for the long period before I managed to get a steady game group, mostly the only way I played. I had two opponents: Josianne, my best friend and partner of 15 years, and James, one of my closest friends, a relationship based on ribbing and schadenfreude.

Ever since I started designing games, I knew I wanted to make a two-player game one I could play and enjoy both with Josianne, on a more casual, feel-good level, and with James, where I’d get to explode into laughter at his swearing whenever I messed up his plans. 

With a Smile & a Gun is that game.

First Steps

When I first started working on a two-player game, there was one core concept I was interested in exploring: I wanted the players to share a pool of actions, but to be able to use them for different objectives. In Agricola, to block you from taking wood, I need to take wood myself but I might not want wood. For that, I wanted each action to be used in different ways, to be interesting regardless of strategy.

The idea of a “shared action pool” led me to try and make a game about a  werewolf — one player would play as the human, the other as the beast within⁠ — where each action would take the form of either a helpful companion or potential prey. This was my first game design, and it never got anywhere; I realized I needed to start smaller. I might still make that game one day, but at the time, I wasn’t a good enough designer for an asymmetric project like that, like Vast or Root. To be honest, I still don’t think I am.

The question became: how could I make “shared opportunities, used differently” work without drowning in asymmetry?

Second Draft

Eventually, in mid-2017, I started playing (and loving) a lot of dice-drafting games: Sagrada, Roll Player, Blueprints, Grand Austria Hotel. It took me a bit before I realized that mechanism was exactly what I was looking for: a shared pool, which players would be able to use in different ways. 

I usually tend to spend a lot of time in the early stages of design thinking about game ideas in an almost academic way. Once I find a core, I break it down, trying to find what makes it interesting, and then trying to see what other mechanisms would be best suited to support the core. I often start with “key moments”, which are what I want to cause, as often as possible.

In this case, the key moment was the turn angst of leaving the last 4 in the dice pool, hoping your opponent doesn’t take it… Then, either it got back to you, or it didn’t: either way caused a strong, emotional reaction. 

For that type of moment to happen, I needed players to have two ways to use dice: one that required specific numbers, to cause that turn angst, and one where you could use a bit of everything, to allow for that denial drafting, where the numbers mattered, but it lowered the cost to block. It’s not exactly what I had in mind from the get-go, but it checks all the boxes: you don’t need to hurt yourself in order to block your opponent. I was already imagining doing it to James, and was grinning just thinking about it.

From there, the blocks started falling into place: 

  • The simplest way to require a specific number was to make it a draft-and-move: drafting a die to determine your movement, and the spot you fell on determining the actions you’ll do. Like a roll-and-move, but with a decision point instead of a random result.
  • To avoid a single hate draft costing you the game, I took the 3×3-grid mechanism from Cat Lady: if there was an action you desperately needed, you could access it from its row or its column.
  • To make sure the second die still mattered, I was inspired by Signorie, and made higher dice better, but penalized the players for taking only high dice. In a two-player game, making it a majority-contest opened up a lot of interesting decisions related to the shared pool: the last low die can become a decision maker in a tight race.
  • The best way to incentivize the players to deny opportunities to their opponents, without falling into take-that or wasted turns, is area majority. With a mechanism where placing a cube is worth as much as keeping your opponent from placing theirs, you have to focus on what you leave for them. Piece o’ Cake and Hanamikoji are two of my favorite games, and definitely inspirations for this limited-opportunity approach to area majority.
  • With a two-player game, area majority games often don’t work very well, because there’s no incentive to try and catch up: if a single presence is good enough for 2nd place, why bother trying to get 1st? It’s a flaw often raised by Rahdo, amongst other people, and one I definitely agree with. By adding a third value, not a dummy player per se, but a set value the players have to beat to get their piece of the pie, you often solve this problem: it’s a simple solution that’s often left behind, but it was perfect for this game.

And suddenly, there it was: the skeleton of a game, which still stands to this day, which survived iteration after iteration.

In the next entry, I’ll talk about the game’s thematic evolution. If you’re a mechanism-first designer like me, and you also struggle with finding a theme, maybe my process can help you out?

If this game sounds interesting, you can go look it up at withasmileandagun.com

With a Smile & a Gun is LIVE on KS

Hey readers!

Some of you might be wondering where I’ve been these past month and a half, not posting anything!

Well, turns out preparing for a Kickstarter campaign does not leave a lot of time for writing. At least, now I have this to share:

Click to go to the campaign page!

And with the campaign going live, I have a tiiiiiiny bit more time, and so blog posts will start coming in again, slowly but surely. Let’s be clear: they’ll still be mostly about this game, as it’s the only thing I’ve been thinking about for over six months, but I think there’s a LOT of stuff I’ve learned in the process that would be helpful to others.

So if you’re interested in looking the game up, you can go to WithASmileAndAGun.com to look it up!

Either way, I’ll talk to you later this week!

When to use randomness in your design?

I feel like randomness in game design is like salt: when you start cooking, it’s a quick, easy, cheap way to make anything taste good; then you realize how it overpowers everything it’s in, and kills any sort of deeper flavor, so you throw it out and stop using it; then, eventually, you realize that salt, when used in moderation, is a powerful tool that can help you bring out certain other elements of your dish.

What I mean by that very average metaphor is that I think a modern game should only have random elements if they fulfill a role in the design, but that these roles can make randomness a powerful tool. This post is about the 6 roles randomness can play in games. For each of these roles, I’ll briefly cover how to balance it to avoid overpowering any other part of your game.

Also, most of these examples use the language of dice rolling, but it’s as applicable to drawing a card, pulling a token, or pointing at something with your eyes closed. It’s just simpler to write “roll” than “roll/draw/pull/point”, and most gamers have a common understanding of the impacts and probable outcomes of a die roll.

Theme

I’m getting this one out of the way first, because I have a very strong, but very biased, opinion on this one. Theme is only a good reason to add randomness if you are designing a simulation. If the goal is for your players to be feel like they’ve played a baseball game, or that they’ve lived through a specific historical situation, then fine, add randomness to be true to real-life.

However, if you are making a game, trying to make players experience strong moments and a good time, theme is not a good enough reason. If it fits another role AND is thematic, awesome! But on its own, I don’t think it’s a good enough reason.

Surprise

One of the main draws of randomness is “stand up moments”, moments of tension in a game where players cannot help but stand up because of how much is on the line. Then, at the reveal, some curse, some laugh, some cheer, but those moments always end up memorable.

That being said, for that moment to work, you need the players to care about the result. “D’uh”, I hear you say, but so many games throw me randomness before I care about what happens. There are three factors you can use to make me care about a result:

  1. Clear and understandable result: if I roll 10 dice and need to add them up and know if I have rolled more than 24, that moment gets diluted. If I roll 10 dice and know I need 4 Fist-icons, that I can get right away. A great example of this being done perfectly is Las Vegas, which I’ve talked about in this post.
  2. An important and immediate impact: Imagine a combat game where my attacks deal 2d6 damage: I don’t care how well I roll against a Demon with 100 hit points, because the difference will not be felt for a long time. If that Demon has 10 hit points, then suddenly, it’s the difference between defeating them and them getting another turn. If I know their next attack will kill me, suddenly I’m standing up for that roll, because it literally is life-and-death.
  3. Clearly bad odds: If the odds are in my favor for a roll, two things can happen: either I roll well, which isn’t particularly satisfying, or I can roll poorly, and get very, very frustrated. On the other hand, if I need to roll a 10 on my d10 to dodge the robot’s attack, I can either fail and know the odds were against me, or pull it off and feel like the baddest of all badasses.

If you’re adding randomness to a game to cause those surging moments of surprise, you need to use it sparingly, and only when it matters. No big moment will come out of casual randomness.

Variety

My favorite way to use randomness is to seed the opportunities the players can use: in With A Smile & A Gun, the dice pool you can draft from is rolled every round, and that roll creates scarcities and abundances which change from round to round and can have quite an impact on how the round plays.

That being said, it’s easy for that randomness to either not have a significant impact on the game (which I talked about in this post about meaningful variable setups), or to unfairly punish some players and not others based on their previous choices.

If you’re going for variety, you want players to know their goals before they start building towards them: revealing on the last turn that Diamonds are worth 10 points instead of 5 this game is a really bad surprise to the player who just sold theirs. However, knowing at the beginning of a game, or right before the Diamond mine action comes out, that Diamonds are worth a lot in this specific game, is a good way to push your players in different directions.

Reducing the skill gap

Most critics of randomness in game say a lot of things that come down to “I can lose even if I played better than every one else”, and that’s definitely an impact of randomness, but it can be a good thing. Sure, “the best player should win” sounds right, but if you had to play a master of a game you’ve never tried, would you rather it be a small dice game, or a chess-like, perfect information abstract?

It’s not just having a shot at winning, it’s also about having a shot at making an impact on the game. I’ve played over 60 games of card game Hanamikoji, and still have meaningful games with brand new players, but in only half as many games of abstract Taluva, and it’s hard to get interested in a game with someone who doesn’t have a similar level of experience.

Some games can be satisfying even outside of the competitive aspect, making this skill gap less problematic, games where you can build something or pull off some cool combos. Still, randomness is what allows players of various skill levels to have the experience together without one ruining it for the other.

However, if you reduce the skill gap too much, then your game becomes meaningless, because my decisions feel like they’re less meaningful than how well I roll. Yes, FEEL, because it’s not about how often luck determines the winner, but how often it feels like it does.

Increasing the pace

Analysis paralysis is a common problem with gamers. Sometimes, it’s a player problem, and there’s a lot to unpack there, but sometimes, the game itself pushes players to plan for A LONG TIME. If you find that your testers’ planning slows the game down, you can limit their plans in two ways with randomness:

If the planning space is too wide, meaning they have too many options, limit their options. In Dominion, if you had your entire deck in hand, the combinations would be endless, but because you only draw 5 cards per turn, it limits your options.

If the planning space is too long, meaning they can plan too far in the future, you have to add some breaks in that plan, moments of uncertainty such that you can’t plan much after it. In Dominion, there’s no point in planning 3 turns ahead of time, because you don’t know what you’ll draw next turn.

That being said, limitting a players’ ability to plan doesn’t take away the planning time, it just breaks it down: if new information is revealed during their turn, they’ll have to start planning again while everyone is staring at them.


How eager are you to add randomness to your designs? Have you ever run into a problem that you solved by adding a random element?

Hidden Incentives: Daycare pickups and bribing for attendance

Yup, that’s not a title you thought you’d read eh?

In these days of confinement, I’ve started watching a lot of videos about video game and RPG design, and I like to take those learnings from adjacent disciplines and bring them into board games. And one I’ve read this weekend has stuck with me: the idea that some DMs offer players experience points when they show up to play. Based on the comments I’ve read, it also seems to be a very common thing too.

The idea baffles me for multiple reasons: (1) if your game is enjoyable, players will want to be there by default; (2) if life gets in the way, no XP bribe will be enough to skip out on a funeral; and (3) if it’s a case of “I’m not feeling up to it”, and the bribe does work, how much fun do you think that will be? It reminds me of professors in university who would assign a portion of your mark to attendance: why don’t you instead focus on making your classes interesting and informative, and evaluate the stuff you cover in class?

I also was reminded of this study they covered in Freakonomics (which is one of my favorite books in the world and you should read it too) about a daycare in Haifa, Israel, which had a problem with parents arriving late to pick up their kids, which led to anxious kids and frustrated teachers. As a good game designer would do, they added a counter incentive: if you came in late, it cost you 3$. Instantly, the number of late pickups… almost tripled. They incentivized against something, yet instead of deterring it, it seemed to encourage it?

In fact, what happened is that the cost replaced the much stronger social and moral incentives: before, you wanted to be there on time so you wouldn’t have to face the teacher you had kept from going home, or because you wanted to do the right thing, but after, all of those things were gone. The 3$ erased the guilt: it now just became an exchange like any other, and 3$ is not enough for someone to leave a meeting early or head out while you’re “in the zone”. It’s no longer about the kid, the teacher, or what’s right: it’s about that money.

Same thing happens, in my experience, with attendance “bribes”: if I had a long day and game night feels more like a chore, I might push myself to go so as not to disappoint my group, but if I start to think of it in terms of XP, I’m staying right on my couch. Same with class attendance: by offering points for being there, when my alarm rings in the morning, I think about how many points I’ll lose by staying in bed, not about the commitment I made or the learning I’ll miss.

In games, the same thing is true: in games with targeted interaction, everything else being equal, I’ll try and spread out who I pick on. Actually, spreading it out is a pretty high priority for me: I’ll do it even if it’s less optimal. In Small World, I’ll come in between two other players, just to hit them equally, even if it’s harder to defend; in Scythe, I won’t attack a player I just took a bunch of stuff from. To me, it’s part moral (“we’re all here to have fun, let’s not ruin anybody’s game”), and part social (“I don’t want them to be mad at me”).

Pic by BGG user Lacxox

Then, take a game like Hyperborea, where you get 2 points for every different opponent you’ve won a fight against: all of a sudden, those go out the window, and I’m trying to evaluate whether focusing fire is worth more than 2 points.

Game design is about creating incentives, but one thing you can’t forget is that you have to consider incentives that come from outside of the game during your process: they are often very powerful, but easy to extinguish.

Sometimes, like in the examples above, those incentives already go in the direction you want to push, and you want to avoid smothering them. Sometimes though, those incentives go against your goal: in games about deception, stealing, and other activities which are morally wrong outside of this setting, some players might resist. Adding even a tiny game element can take the guilt right out of it: in my interview with him, Peter C Hayward talked about the hidden incentive of valuing your turns, even if there were no limit to the number of guesses, because those were *your* turns.

Can you think of other instances of hidden incentives in games, whether in published games or in your own designs?

Superfans and Lead Testers

This post was inspired by this tweet, part of a really interesting thread from Emma Larkins, who rocks and is awesome and you should all follow:

The Superfan is something I try to get very early on in a game. Of course, I design games I love, but as Emma said, I want to make sure I’m not the only one who does so. I talked before about designing pitch-first, to make sure you’re designing towards something appealing. Getting a Superfan is a great way to do make sure that that pitch is attractive to someone else, but also that through your process, you’re staying true to your original vision. Plus, if you’re lucky, they’ll keep you accountable: “hey, how is game X going? looking forward to trying out the newest version!”

On each of my games, I’ve managed to get a Superfan early on, and then, I’ve turned them into what I like to call Lead Testers. If a Superfan is proof that your game can attract someone other than you, a Lead Tester is a tool to make sure it stays this way. A Lead Tester is someone who rides the line between playtester and developer, who through repeated play becomes an expert, and who through repeated discussions about the game has a deep understanding of the game.

If you’re reading this, you hopefully know the oft-repeated advice “don’t just playtest with your friends and family”. Cast a wide net, get 50, 60, 80, 100, 200 people to try it out. You need to get multiple opinions, see if the game can survive multiple different groups, and also, get some people hyped about your game, and maybe even your other designs! But another part of it is also that you need people who haven’t played it before to try and see how well a first play can go. Can people understand the rules? Are there first-level strategies? How approachable is the game? How readable? All those questions can only be answered through testing with new players, and you can’t “pretend you don’t know it”. In this world of games which are only played once, that first impression is key.

That being said, the Lead Tester will also help you with something else: expert-level play. Can the game sustain interest through repeated plays? Can a strategy be exploited? Are all of these factions viable? Sometimes, what you need is not a pair of fresh eyes, but the keen, wise gaze of a veteran, someone who’s been there before, and knows the game as well as you do, without being as close to the content as you are. Sometimes, you need someone to play the game 10 times in a row, so you can try out a few different faction ideas you’ve had. When I first added what would become the Shadow cards to With A Smile & A Gun, my buddy James ordered me to go make some more: “we both have Thursday off, let’s go for coffee and try them all out!”

Of course, a Lead Tester cannot be your only source of testing, but I would still suggest you try and get one for each of your projects. But how? It’s a very simple 4-step process:

  1. Get an awesome pitch;
  2. When somebody responds positively to the pitch, playtest with them;
  3. If they respond positively to the playtest, playtest with them again;
  4. After each test with them, push the discussion a bit deeper.

Some people won’t want to be that involved. Some people won’t need to be pushed. At this point, it’s social skills: try to feel their interest level, and the relationship you have with them; make sure not to push on them roles they don’t want. If you’re lucky, a Lead Tester will take that role with pride, without you having to ask, but most of the time, you’ll either have to gauge it as you go, or, and I would suggest doing it this way, just asking them: “Hey, I think you’re exactly the kind of gamer I’m making this game for. Would you mind being making sure the game stays true to that throughout its development?”

Have you had the chance to get a Lead Tester for one of your designs? Or have you yourself taken that role, whether officially or not, for another designer?