This is a continuation in my series on D&D, Negotiating for Fun and Working the Rules. Those previous posts discussed RPGs as a structured negotiation to advance a narrative, and a tactical exercise in visual and mathematical problem solving. Since those posts, I’ve had gaming groups come and go, hacked together my own foresight RPG system with Eventuality, and used RPGs as a worldbuilding exercise with middle school kids. This time around, I’d like to talk about game systems which are tightly structured to produce criminal caper narratives, Leverage and Blades in the Dark, how they achieve that end, and some problems that I’m having with Skill Challenges in my D&D 4e game.
Leverage is based on the TV show of the same name, and features a group of gold-hearted con artists getting even with the corrupt, rich, and powerful. The basic element of the game is one of the players trying to figure out the weakness of the Mark, or set them up somehow, which they do by rolling Stat+Skill+extra bonuses against the GM’s traits. Where the game excels is in its strategic resource Plot Points, which are generated by characters rolling ones on the dice, which typically failing at the task at hand. Plot points can be used to bring in additional dice in future actions, describe flashbacks, but most importantly, they’re used to empower the Mastermind in the final scene of the session, where she takes down the Mark.
Leverage is based around this generative resource, which increase through a session. On the positive side, Plot Points do a good job mimicking the ebb and flow of a TV episode, where the characters will lose before winning. The tension between using Plot Points to gain advantage in a scene and saving them for the finale introduces a strategic element.
Blades in the Dark is set in an original steampunk setting strongly reminiscent of the Dishonored videogames. Characters play a group of thieves of different specialties, trying to overcome a series of obstacles to achieve their score and get away clean. Each obstacle is ranked by a ‘clock’, bigger being more difficult, and players must fill in the relevant details of one of the five plans (Assault, Deception, Infiltration, Occult, and Social). Actions taken by the player include Leading a Group Action, where every character participates and the leader takes Stress for each player that fails, or On Point, where one person rolls but the entire group takes Stress if the result is less than perfect.
Stress, in this case is an interesting twist to the traditional Hit Point mechanic. The GM narrates the terrible consequences of failure (Cross slips past your defenses and stabs you in the chest) and the player cancels those consequences by spending Stress. Once you’re out of Stress you start taking Trauma, long-term damage. Being On Point or Leading is stressful, so a good heist rotates roles so that no single character is overtaxed and everybody gets a chance to shine.
Leverage and Blades in the Dark fill similar niches on a shelf of RPG games: medium crunch, but with strong narrative elements. Both of them do an excellent job in of emulating heist movies and other criminal caper, with the group formulating and executing a complex plan with unique resources, skills, and flashbacks. Having run them, I like them both, although for different reasons. Blades in the Dark does an outstanding job in focusing the game on a dark and threatening universe, by letting the GM explicitly state the horrible things that will happen if the PCs fail (State the Danger), and letting players counter that by spend Stress. Leverage encourages its very competent characters to take risks in order to build up Plot Points. Blades in the Dark is attritional; the strategic risk is that you’ll still be midway through a job when you run out of Stress. Leverage is additive; success is more or less assured once you’ve build up enough Plot Points, assuming the group stays interested during the session. Additive gameplay is more innovative (decreasing hitpoints are a very old gaming convention), but I appreciated how Blades in the Dark encourages good RPing on the part of the GM. I liked how Leverage starts simple, and builds up a dizzying array of Assets and Complications as the caper advances, although in practice I players didn’t have enough Plot Points to use frequently.
Finally, let’s talk about D&D4e, which I’m currently playing. D&D4e is an outstanding tactical miniature games. The combat system, with it’s tactical and strategic resources for hit points, different levels of commitment to an attack with At-Wills, Encounter, and Daily powers, and the “exploding chess” elements of proper teamwork is like nothing else I’ve seen. Position is vital, with even a single square making the difference between taking out an enemy, and getting mobbed by the survivors.
The problem is that the Skill Challenge system is so paper thin that it barely works as a companion to the combat rules. The Skill Challenge rules are of the form “Roll X successes before Y failures,” with some advice to vary up which skills are in use. They all fail in similar ways: they encourage only the most skilled characters to interact with the challenge rather combining the abilities of the team. They don’t link the fiction of the narrative to the rolls of the dice. And most importantly, there is almost no interaction: no choice about what to do, when to press the advantage, and when to pull back. It’s not that Skill Challenges are a bad system; they’d be perfectly sufficient in almost any other rule system. It’s that don’t fit in with the D&D4e combat system and design philosophy, and the mismatch grates.
Fun gameplay involves gaining and spending resources, and choosing when to accept risks in the hopes of getting greater rewards later on. Good design means knowing what resources matter to the game, how they ebb and flow, and how they work the narrative fiction being negotiated at the table. We can always just say “roll and tell me what happens”, but a properly aimed game has figured out what kind of story it wants to tell, and builds in interesting ways to roll the dice to achieve that story.