Sunday, March 8, 2020

Some Hackable/Portable Ideas for Streamlining Play - Or, Making Emergent Narrative Emerge Sooner

Oooh, I'll get in trouble for that subtitle somehow.

Sometimes the siren call of the green grass across the fence reaches us, and we try out something new - or revisit something old, again. Lately, I've found myself in one of those moods.

I have long loved a fairly minimalist approach to game rules. But lately I've had a hankering for a further level of streamlining - for an approach to gaming that is still capable of handling tightly-focused action when you want it, but is also more open to fluid, fast-moving developments in play. I'm wanting something that lets a party accelerate past some of the grind of dungeon-crawling and just get on with the exciting bits. Please, don't misunderstand me: I recognize fully that when we're in a dungeon-crawling mood, dungeon-crawling itself provides the exciting bits. But sometimes, the gamer-heart hankers not for yet another dark hallway full of random encounters, but for the rest of the story (yes, even if that story remains a result of emergent play). Play a D&D campaign long enough, and survive, and you'll get there - but frankly, my gaming time is limited enough that I sympathize if my players want to skip past the next monster-infested necropolis wing and find out what happened to that prisoner they're hunting, go back home, challenge the corrupt lord, build up the peasant militia they've been raising, and start getting epic. Of course, you can do this with vanilla D&D or OSR systems; but it's hard to do it quickly. I think.

Meanwhile I've been revisiting some old interests, systems connected to the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) or Forged in the Dark (FitD) approaches to gaming [associated most famously with Apocalypse World and Dungeon World (PbtA) or the grim-but-flashy urban-thieves game Blades in the Dark (FitD) (note - affiliate links up there)]. Don't run away, OSR fans; I'm not advocating a simple shift to narrativist story-gaming. I have a strong preference for GM narrative authority, for player creativity/skill affecting game outcomes, and for stories that emerge through gameplay rather than forcing preconceived story ideas into play. No, no - my point today is to highlight a few useful tools that are in play "out there" - tools that could be back-ported into the sort of systems I more often run myself, in order to streamline play and make emergent narratives emerge...sooner. [Note: I am not saying that normal OSR play is bad-wrong-fun]. Instead: hey folks, here are some cool ways to make an OSR game look, act, and feel a little different - just for those moments when you want it to.

Below, I highlight some interesting mechanics that can streamline play by moving the action quickly between places and/or 'scenes' - without just skipping challenges or hand-waving the transition through fiat.  

I also want to discuss some other issues, soon but decided that this post is long enough without them:

  • Streamlining loot and currency systems, without sacrificing verisimilitude
  • Streamlining Domain-management play - and making it more accessible
  • Making PCs feel more heroic or competent - without making the game too 'crunchy
  • Finally, I'll hope to offer some general musings on the comparisons between PbtA/FitD systems and OSR-style trad D&D-inspired systems. Or, 'how might we create a more fluid, flexible, and dynamic game experience without crossing the line into story-gaming?'

Word. Let's do this.


First, let's be clear: you don't really need some shiny mechanic just to move a party from Point A to Point B. "Ok," says the GM, "it takes you three days to cross the mountain pass, but once you come down from the mouth of the pass you see that the caravanserai down on the plains is on fire, and a plume of gray smoke glowers over a field of corpses. What do you do?" Or: "Ok, so you've pretty much cleared out this dungeon; you want to go back to town? Cool. So, once you're back at the Braying Baron Inn, you're approached by a mysterious, bald, blind stranger who..."

That being said, there are good arguments for making the party risk their resources etc. to get back home alive - so not just jumping to the next bit is fine, too. Lately I've considered some interesting approaches in the middle, methods to get to the next place quickly without just hand-waving it, relying on GM fiat for the outcome, or removing the pressure that PCs might run out of luck and resources if they delve too long, too far.

The 'montage roll' from John Harper's World of Dungeons: Turbo - Breakers. Harper wrote World of Dungeons AND Blades in the Dark; he's a powerhouse designer in the PbtA/BitD world and has lots of good ideas. Here's one of them: "Use a montage roll whenever you want to skip over something. You might ask one of the PCs to make a roll to lead the team through an area or to execute a plan instead of playing out every moment of it. ... Then use the outcome to establish the PCs' position for the next encounter: good, bad, or in-between." WoDu, like most PbtA games, relies on rolling 2d6 +Stat and then reading the result as: 6- you fail and/or something bad happens; 7-9, you partly succeed and/or you do succeed but something bad also happens; 10+, yay you got what you were hoping for.

Pretty similar is the Crawling mechanic from Dylan Green's Blades against Darkness (an in-development fantasy dungeoncrawling hack of Harper's Blades in the Dark). The same array of results basically underlies the FitD systems (though with important distinctions...anyway): roll a d6 pool, take the highest result: 6 = success, 4-5 = success with problem, 1-3 = failure and trouble (the FitD array is more punishing, but it uses characters with more mechanical options to defuse trouble).

In Green's BaD, PCs start a mission/crawl with more information than they might in D&D; you set up a pointcrawl-like grid of the area they're infiltrating, and share whatever information they might reasonably have learned through research, spying, legend, etc. Then instead of requiring PCs to interact with each 10' square, you let them call out where they want to move (this seems a lot like the "flux space" idea that has been discussed in OSR blogosphere conversations about pointcrawling). Anyway, to move from one area of the dungeon/setting to another, despite the attendant hazards, you make a dice-pool roll and then:
+ On success, the PCs progress through the dungeon toward their desired location, and see trouble coming before it encounters them (though they then need to deal with that trouble, of course)
+ On a mixed success, the PCs make progress to their destination but any obstacle or challenge hits them up front - "they find themselves in the thick of danger as it happens."
+ On a failure, "the PCs do not make progress and danger strikes."

I can imagine bolting on a simple version of this for overland or even underworld travel: roll a d6, add a d6 for each character with a clear ranger/orienteering/stealth background, and then read the result.

Alternately, when leaving the dungeon, consider the 'extraction roll' from Green's Blades against Darkness. FitD games use an extended mechanic of "Entanglements", Heat (or Ire, I think, in BaD), and other ways to add trouble to the PCs' lives between sessions. But that kind of trouble is exacerbated by the risks the party takes in the dungeon and on the way home - resolved, however, with the clatter of a few dice:

"When you are not directly engaged with an obstacle that would prevent you from making your escape, you may roll for extraction.
+1d if the crew is pursued by enemies.
+1d for each ally who needs assistance to escape.
+1d if you have disturbed the forbidden past or caused wanton destruction.
+1d if you have spilled blood of the righteous, innocent, or foolish.
+/- for other significant factors."

This gives you a little dice pool to roll for the party. You then take the highest die result, and use its value to calculate how many Entanglements etc. the party suffers before their next session; these also feed into emerging campaign-level threats (a bit like Dungeon World fronts, I think). This little web of systems means that the PCs have a clear way to bail and run away if they need to - or if they're just done - but the conduct of their exploration, and the threats they haven't yet neutralized, all should affect the mental calculus of when to turn tail and run home, or not.

One last mechanic, then I'll pin this and save the rest of the discussion for another post.

John Harper's little microgame Ghost/Echo offers a fun, sort-of-storygamey resolution mechanic - I ran a play-by-email adventure using this game once and found it quite user-friendly. Its vagueness with flexibility could make it a very helpful bolt-on mechanic for quickly resolving large-scale events or processes when a simple binary success/fail answer is kind of boring, but you also don't want to play through the whole thing in detail. Here, when you do something that courts both success or danger, you build a little dice pool: one d6 per goal, one d6 per danger. The player and GM each can add an additional danger to boost the dice pool. Also, add a die if the PC is particularly well-equipped or trained for this attempt. Roll all the dice, and then the player assigns each rolled die as follows:

Goal: 1-2, the goal fails and the opportunity is lost; 3-4, the goal is partly achieved but the opportunity to do better remains; 5-6, the goal is fully achieved. But meanwhile -

Danger: 1-2, the danger comes true as feared; 3-4, the danger partly comes true, and the potential for its worst to happen still remains; 5-6, the danger is averted and will not return.

So. For example: The PCs need to get through the Mournwail Pass by Tuesday, or they'll miss the coronation and won't expose the Prince Impostor in time. Unfortunately, the Mournwail Pass is infamously home to flesh-eating ghouls. Everyone is really excited to get to the big showdown with the Prince Impostor, but it doesn't feel right to just hand-wave away the meaningful risk of fighting through the Pass - or to spend the next game session playing it out. Instead:
+ grab a d6 for the Goal: the party crosses the Pass.
+ grab a d6 because the party's Ranger has experience crossing this route.
+ grab a d6 for the Danger: a random PC is bitten and becomes ghoul-sick.
+ grab a d6 for the Danger: the route takes too much time, and you miss the Coronation.

Now roll 4d6 and...2, 3, 5, 6. Now assign them as desired.
6 = we MUST stop the false coronation! We assign the 6 to our goal, and the party does make it through the pass.
5 = ditto; we assign the other success to cancel the danger that we don't arrive on time. All set for trouble in the capital!
3 = hmmm...unfortunately this means that the last danger comes partly true and lingers as a possible consequence for later. So, we'll accept that a random PC got ghoul-scratched. But it's only partly come true - the PC isn't feeling well, but they aren't clearly falling undead yet...instead of suffering the consequence outright, the danger will remain - the GM will keep this in mind for trouble in the near-future. Hopefully the PC will make it through ok, but we have to hurry to the capital...
2 = we'll throw it out (I only need to assign 1 goal and 2 dangers, so I get to discard one result rolled).


None of these ideas are necessary to enjoy a good rollicking game of D&D or what have you, but each of them might prove useful for tinkering when you want to streamline certain time-consuming aspects of gameplay and speed ahead to something else - without just hand-waving away all the risk and danger. There is room for fruitful cross-pollination between different types of games, even when we remain quite content with the core assumptions of our favored systems...

I will aim to add a second post soon discussing some other kinds of streamlined mechanics - not for movement, but for managing wealth and domain play, etc.

Happy gaming.


  1. The montage thing could be cool, but not like that guy described. Let me think about it and come up with something awesome.

  2. This an excellent example of the issues inherent in the Ghost/Echo dice mechanics:

    - it's easy to have conflicting goals and dangers: in this case avoiding the danger of missing the Coronation IMPLIES succeeding at the goal of crossing the Path: you can't fail the goal and avoid the danger, it wouldn't make sense, so if you want to avoid the danger you are forced to succeed at the goal, you can't choose how to assign that die.

    - sometimes it's difficult do interpret the intermediate results: what would a 3 to the goal even mean here? We cross the path but… not quite? We can do it better if we try again? We know that we cross it in time for the coronation, so…??

    Maybe a better solution would be to discard the danger "missing the Coronation" and have as a goal:
    - 5-6: cross in time
    - 3-4: cross but late
    - 1-2: fail to cross

    Or maybe a PbtA-style custom move:
    - success: cross in time, unscathed
    - partial success: cross, but choose between a ghoul bite and being late
    - failure: miss the Coronation, and choose between a ghoul bite and failing to cross at all

    In Ghost/Echo (and Otherkind, and Psi*Run) goals and dangers are quite strictly codified, but this is a mechanics that is fascinating but not always easy to adapt to a freeform situation.

    1. You're right - it is easy to mix up goals/dangers. In this case, as you note, my initial suggestion conflates two things that probably shouldn't be separated (making it across the pass, and doing so in time). I like your alternative of having one single die determine whether the PCs cross, and do so in time. That being said, one way to handle the 3-4 result might be to say that the issue remains unresolved and will require a second throw of the dice - any goals or dangers fully resolved by the first roll are now 'locked in,' but the second roll with further risks is needed to clarify exactly how the rest of the goals/dangers turn out.

      The PbtA move is certainly simplest - but I think I like the option of having a little more granular procedure, in which additional dice are rolled and the players have a bit more choice in assigning dice, etc. (not for every move in a game, but when streamlining a larger process like this).

      Thanks for your comment!

    2. What I especially like about a more granular procedure is the ability to organically arrive at situations like the example partial success result given above ("choose between a ghoul bite and being late"). That is, rather than having to decide up front that that's the tradeoff, it emerges from the available dice results. For some reason that feels more satisfying to me than a generic table with "7-9: success but a danger happens"

      Something else I've been thinking about is the cattle raiding system in Kevin Crawford's Wolves of God. There are multiple roles for the raiders to take, either getting the raid safely away or keeping all the stolen cattle together. The procedure ends when (1) the raiders get away, (2) the raiders are caught, or (3) there are no more cattle being stolen (they are presumably wandering all over the countryside). It's obviously more complicated than the single roll systems you're describing here but has a similar nature in that you're trying to abstract away a process that happens over a period of time.

  3. Ha, I see you ended up going along similar lines:

    Very cool!

    1. I did. :-) My players are liking it too - we are currently using a form of those overland journey rules for jungle-crawing around a (modified) Isle of Dread.


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