Lessons from an unexpected playtest moment

Overview

Playtesting my Tabletop Role Playing Game (TTRPG) I encountered a situation that worried, and surprised me. This post discusses an unexpected combat where I’m worrying if my characters will survive because they’re too “real”, and then finding myself 🤯 “blown away” by what happens.

If you don’t care about how TTRPGs work, don’t bother reading this. I’ll be narrating a surprisingly short combat, and then talking about what worked well.

Quick Mechanical / Rules Note

In this game I’ve got approaches, which are a lot like Starforged / Ironforged & Fate Accellerated, but they’re combined with skills. So, if someone is - for example - trying to punch you, you could be like “let ’em try” and try to impersonate an immovable wall with sheer muscle. If you do it really well, they might become intimidated or something else narratively appropriate. Alternately you could “float like a butterfly” and try and dodge the blows.

Also, all the rolls are player facing, so when an adversary attacks, the player rolls to defend.

Learning from what went down.

Setting The Scene

Our companions have just overcome a harrowing - and potentially deadly - attempt to cross a ravine. When they reach the far side they fall to the ground exhausted; breathing heavy, looking at the sky, and thankful to be alive.

Before they can fully catch their breath, one of them hears a sound. They look over and see 6 people with spears coming at them with very stabby intent (🔪🔪🔪).

Side note on how we got here

Flopping to the ground after the harrowing encounter was the end of a scene. I was planning on having the characters just catch their breath and eat lunch. However the Mythic Game Master Emulator (GME) had other ideas. The oracle tells me it’s a “Confident Threat”. I’m thinking maybe it’s a large predator thinking it’s got an easy meal, but then the Creature Crafter is like “no way. it’s 6+ armored people”. I ask my oracle what their deal is and it says “Threatening Warning”. So, I’m thinking “ok, these folks must have recently moved into this area & are guarding it. Maybe we can talk our way out of this.” But then my Doom mechanic kicks in, and it’s like “well, actually… they are pissed and going to stab first and discuss later”

My Doom mechanic is basically a Doom Pool (a pool of points the GM can optionally spend to complicate players’ lives) with some rules to mechanically kick it off sometimes. As I play through this combat I learn its actually a little too aggressive & I end up ignoring it half way through. That’s a separate discussion though so I’m not going to really mention it much past this. Just know that most of the rolls are generating doom & the mechanism keeps making me use it.

Playing it out

At this point I’m fully believing that they can not survive fighting these folks, and running is their only real option.

You see, in this setting there’s a hint of magic, but mostly people are just… people - although not always human. Some are weak, some are strong, but mostly they’re like us: primarily differentiated by their personalities and the things they know how to do. PCs are no more powerful, and no less stabbable than anyone else. Also, it’s pretty easy to die. This is because in real life it’s pretty easy to die. Also, I’ve not been not rolling a ton of “successes” up to this point.

Our party consists of 1 large martial artist (Les), who’s paired with a weak, semi-ambulatory magic user (Meg) who usually gets around on a “Hover Disk”. Think wheelchair, but it looks like a wok. For story reasons that’s strapped to her chest, and even if it was under her, it doesn’t move quickly. They’re traveling with a Seer / Herbalist (Sennen) who has fuck-all for fighting skills but is physically fit. Note that magic is NOT about creating explosions and zapping rays in this world. It’s pretty subtle, but also very flexible.

However, they wouldn’t have made it across the ravine without Meg’s spells, and if she casts one more she’ll take a “Condition”, which would probably be a very Bad Thing™. There’s a good chance she’d pass out. She’s got the aspects “Weak” and “Semi-Ambulatory” which can be invoked by the GM (me), but mostly just mean “she’s not running anywhere, or lifting anything”.


I work out the red black initiative, & discover that 3 of the 6 bad guys go first. It is my expert opinion that the characters are fucked, and it’ll be a fucking miracle if they get out of here alive.

Three of them head for Les because he’s narratively an obvious danger (not relevant why).

BG1 (Bad Guy 1 - At this point I don’t care what their names are) manages to cut Les, BG2 tries, but Les rolls spectacularly, gets a critical success, uses it for a free attack, succeeds & because less has the “Powerful” aspect he spends a Story Point (similar to “FATE Points”) to invoke that and break the guy’s arm. BG3 doesn’t manage to hit Les, and now it’s Les’s turn. He gets another critical success, spends another Story Point & breaks this guy’s arm. Unarmed combat is Les’s “thing”, & he’s Meg’s bodyguard so all of this makes a ton of narrative sense.

BG4 is going after Sennen. Sennen - again - has fuck-all for fighting skills. She will not be able to just dodge the impending spear. As a player I’m thinking “Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.” because I’ve got nothing. I realize there’s no way i can approach this like most TTRPG fights. The mechanics are clearly communicating, “You better get damn creative or you’re gonna die.”

So i start thinking about the character, and what she can do. Sennen’s job as Seer means that she spends a lot of time observing people, and understanding them and how they work emotionally. She needs, to so that she can convince them her predictions need to be taken seriously. Her strongest approach is “Heart”.

So, I lean into that. Sennen knows that she can’t beat these guys in a fight. Her strong intuition is telling her that they are not going to listen to any reasonable discussion. She knows what makes people afraid, because fear is a great reason to listen to a prediction. So, she becomes a completely insane Honey Badger of a human and instead of trying to dodge the attack runs at the guy screaming the most unhinged things she can think of to “throw him off” mentally. And it works! She rolls a critical success. Sennen catches him off guard, gets in close, uses the extra success to disarm him, and spends a Story Point to his spear into the woods. This is just so awesome and 🤯 that I have to reward it so (borrowing from FATE) I give him & his partner the “Aspect” of “disturbed / unsettled” with 2 free invokes. The next baddy was just coming in to stab a flopped intruder but now some fucked up shit is happening and the Honey Badger woman just got in his partners face and disarmed him.

Mechanically this gives me an extra die from invoking the “disturbed / unsettled” aspect, and 1 because he doesn’t want to hit his friend. So, Sennen just keeps going with what’s working, pushes off of the first guy, doesn’t dodge and fucking lunges at the second continuing to spout disturbing things and acting like she’ll fucking eat his eyeballs directly out of his skull. She wouldn’t, but he doesn’t know that. And again, a critical success, so again she uses it to disarm her opponent, and again spends a Story Point to huck it into the woods.

So, to recap: we’ve got 2 attackers screaming in pain from their broken arms. We’ve got 2 attackers with no weapons at hand, & only 1 of the characters has had had a chance to take their turn.

It’s Sennen’s turn now. She yells “RUN!!!” They were all close to begin with. She sees Meg getting to her feet, and shoves her forward so that now she’s “supermanning” her Hover Disk, which means its got someone on it, and it’s oriented correctly relative to the ground so it starts acting like a Hover Disk, and Sennen is pushing Meg and trying to GTFO.

The last attacker was going for Meg, but now tries to spear Sennen as she’s starting to go with Meg. Sennen’s still acting completely unhinged but she’s not directly interacting with this adversary so it’s not going to have the same effect. She’s just got to run with pure muscle and hope that she’s faster. That’s not her forté though.

To Help Meg spends 1 Story Point to say that as she was starting to get up she grabbed a handful of dirt and rocks. She then Helps Sennen by throwing it at the attacker’s face.

Sennen rolls and we discover that she doesn’t “run”. She RUNS. She rolls 3 successes and is fucking gone.

Finally, it’s Meg’s turn, but she’s strapped to a Hover Disk, being rapidly pushed through the woods like a kid pretending to fly. She can’t access her slingshot. She can’t cast anything that’ll be particularly useful to Les, and if she tries she’ll take a “Condition” (a Bad Thing™). So, she just lets herself be pushed and watches for obstacles. Les is on his own.

The 1st attacker, the one who actually hit, is pissed. Two of his friends just got their arms broken, but he actually cut Les and is gonna do it again. Until Les, rolls another critical success, takes the free attack, succeeds at that, spends another Story Point and this time, because he knows it’ll slow them down more, breaks the guy’s knee.

On his turn he takes off, avoiding the adversaries.

The scene ends with our protagonists “booking it” through the woods, while the camera zooms back to a group that’s got 3 screaming guys - one of whom is rolling on the ground holding their leg, two of whom are completely freaked out by the Honey Badger woman who disarmed both of them, and the last one is wondering WTF just happened.

There is also, a new adversarial faction that’s very pissed off, and will soon start hunting our protagonists.

Lesson’s Learned

At its heart my core dice mechanic is the Year Zero Engine from Fria Ligan. I’ve taken a LOT of liberties with it, but players are building a pool of dice, and hoping some of them roll sixes. So, each die has a roughly 16% chance of success. It’s not a lot.

Doom Pool

On top of that I’d added in a Doom Pool mechanic where every time you rolled a 1 it generated “Doom”. As soon as the roll was resolved, you’d see if the Doom pool got activated. It was getting activated way too often. Additionally I found it easy generate more doom (rolling a 1) but difficult to succeed (roll a 6). That is of course, a purely emotional take as the odds are always identical, but it was still sticking its nose in “too often”.

Whenever Doom was generated I’d roll a d6. If i rolled under, something “negative” happened. I rolled under a lot. Especially because many rolls generated more than one point of Doom.

In a way this feels like how PbtA games frequently feel like it’s nigh-impossible to have a roll without complications. Unlike many PbtA games I don’t have suggested complications for every roll, because I don’t have “moves”. I plan on creating some tables for mental and physical complications, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. Even then, I feel like “Doom” / GM Intrusions / FATE Compels shouldn’t be happening so often it feels like every other roll.

Also, the mechanics kicking it off so often means that there’s frequently none, or hardly any in the pool for the GM to use for story reasons.

I need to reconsider how Doom is generated, how much can be built up, and how it’s invoked mechanically by the game.

Helping Players

The big lesson here is not that my Doom mechanic is trying to kill me. It’s that with sufficient support, perfectly “average” characters can absolutely beat the odds.

Before I get into this, I need to acknowledge that the characters did roll atypically well, but I firmly believe that they could have pulled through with more average rolls. They’d just have been more battered. I think we can look to the many successful campaigns of Mutant Year Zero (and friends) for confirmation that it’s a dangerous / “deadly” system, but one in which most characters stay alive for an entire campaign.

The difference here is that in games like Mutant Year Zero all the characters and going out ready for a fight, and having reasonable expectations they’ll have one, & be able to survive it.

My setting isn’t like that. It’s more about telling stories of mostly “normal” people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. Yes, there’s magic sprinkled in but it’s just a subtle enhancement. It’s influencing elements or creatures, encountering ghosts, getting an occasional glimpse of the future. No zappy zappy with magic or sci-fi weapons.

In this case my characters were trying to race 3 days through the woods to get a thing before a religious group did. If they encountered the religious group, they had no intention of fighting them… but 💩 happens.

So, ultimately what we need to do is have a way for characters to find themselves in situations they’re completely unsuited to, without saying “Tough shit. You’re fucked.”

I think I may have succeed in providing the structure to support that. I’m not sure if players will be able to take advantage of it. As we saw with Sennen, it may require some verylateral thinking

  • Meta Currency / Story Points / FATE Points

    This was the primary reason the characters survived. BUT the key to it working was to not use it for something simplistic like a bonus to rolls, or a reroll. First off, Year Zero already gives me a nice reroll ability that comes with a cost. Secondly, I think a lot of people have come to the conclusion is that one of the big problems with FATE is that no-matter how cool your “stunt” is, they’re ultimately all just “add +2 to your roll”.

    Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but not by much. The point is, spending meta-currency to get a simple same-feeling mechanical bonus just isn’t fun.

    Using one to invoke a Flashback like Blades in the Dark is pretty awesome. Using one to inject an object / fact into the world is pretty awesome.

    I think Les using a Story Point to change a successful attack into a broken arm by invoking the fact that he’s “Powerful” is awesome. The rules don’t define the mechanical result of invoking your Aspects. They just tell you how, and trust the players and GM to do something that makes narrative sense, and is something that “could actually happen” in the scene.

    Normally “disarming” an opponent means they drop their weapon, but that they can also pick it up again. Her opportunity to disarm was an option in the rules for “critical success”, but spending a Story Point to remove it from play wasn’t fancy, but it was an awesome underdog move. It also made narrative sense. She couldn’t have done it if they were in a room, but they were by the edge of the woods so yeah. It made narrative sense for that to be gone until they spent time to wander off and look for it.

    Giving your players a tool that gives them huge flexibility as long as it makes narrative sense enables them to do creative things that have significant mechanical benefits.

    My characters start out with 5 “Story Points”. That may be too much, but it’s not a lot. It’s also tempered by the fact that you can only invoke it when it’s

  • Critical Successes

    I love games with complicated degrees of success. Great success. Success with complications, failure with benefits, etc.

    Critical Success are a ton of fun. Having only 1 potential consequence like “double your damage” isn’t. I think I’ve got 4 specified options related to combat situations, and the strong suggestion that any reasonable form of “more” or “and also” is highly encouraged.

  • Mechanically Encouraging Cooperation

    I’m leveraging Year Zero’s “push” mechanic. You’re rolling a pool of D6s & this lets you reroll everything that isn’t a 1 or a 6, but it comes with a cost. This is usually physical or mental stress, of which the characters have very small pools.

    Rerolls do increase your odds, but not as much as rolling “with advantage” and allowing 5s & 6s to be considered a success. The difference isn’t as big as you’d expect, but it feels like it is. Of equal importance is that it encourages characters to help each other. That comes with a cost too though. If the roll goes badly, everyone who helped will share the negative consequences - assuming it makes narrative sense.

    Combined with the ability to spend Story Points Meg was able to Help Sennen get a fantastic outcome at something she was bad at, and it enabled Meg to participate in a meaningful way when she would have otherwise just done nothing.

  • Aspects

    There’s a lot of debate about “Aspects” as FATE uses them. I debate them with myself constantly. If you haven’t played with them I recommend checking out the episode of Wil Wheaton’s TableTop where they play FATE with one of its creators. It’s also just a great intro to FATE.

    I have so many feelings about the idea of creating an Aspect in a scene and letting players then use it mechanically, but it can work.

    I think it worked well with Sennen’s making her attackers worried / disturbed / uneasy. It made narrative sense. The dice were certainly trying to tell that story, and it also makes sense that after a couple “invokes” it’d be harder to leverage that. The adversaries would start dealing with it more competently. It should be noted that when I rolled I wasn’t trying to create an aspect. I was trying to not get skewered. After succeeding my GM brain kicked in and said “hey, that was an awesome moment. Let’s reward that. Let’s build on it.” So, I created an aspect that was ultimately just a side effect of creative play.

    In addition to making a player feel great, making Aspects in that manner is also going to help reinforce the idea that “oh yeah, I can create an aspect to help myself”. If things had played out differently that may have been the best option for Meg’s turn. The game encouraging players to “help” each other so they can roll with “advantage” whenever possible is also going to feed into this. Players will be more likely to do something to help their friends in more ways.

    At the same time, Aspects are a bit “weird”. I can see why some players might have problems with them.

    What I learned from this is that they’re another important tool for helping characters to help themselves when they weren’t created in a way that is any good for the situation. It gives them a mechanical benefit for creative play, and creative play was the only way out of that situation.

  • Forced Creativity

    With “Story Points” and flexible “Critical Successes” alone I’ve got a pretty decent support system for “you can do more”. Allowing players to intentionally, or inadvertently create “aspects” that help them gives them more options.

    The complication is that I can have the rules put you in a tough place. I can’t make you think out of the box though.

    For example, I think that if you asked someone who’d only played D&D to play Sennen, when she was about to get poked the first time they’d probably just “try to dodge”, and fail miserably.

    I think the idea of “approaches” does help with this though. If you’re looking at your character sheet and going “damn, couldn’t punch my way out of a wet paper bag, but I am really good at [insert approach here] it encourages them to try a different approach.

    Now, you’re definitely going to get players trying to bend the intent. I think Sennen’s “Honey Badger” approach using “Heart” was right on the edge of that. Some GMs might have ruled against it. Personally I allowed it because it was plausible, and because if I said no I’d basically be saying “Tough shit.” The rest of the encounter would have probably sucked for them because there wasn’t much else they could do. Also, just “holy shit yes!” I want to see what happens when the player / character tries something “crazy”. “Be a fan of your players” is some great advice, even when you’re playing solo.

    My task is to figure out how to direct players towards non-standard options. I also need to find ways to encourage GMs to be fans of their players & their characters, but NOT to just “let them do whatever”.

    I think it’s critical that whatever they attempt is narratively plausible. If you’re watching a movie about a weakling nerd who needs to see what’s happening on the other side of a concrete wall, you’re going to be “W.T.F?!” if they suddenly punch through said wall to see.

  • Trust things that work.

    While I’ve severely modified it, the Year Zero Engine is a proven system. The math works. Tons of people have had great experiences playing it in a variety of settings. I was seriously wondering if I’d screwed up because I was rolling so bad, for so long. So, I graphed the probabilities, and saw that “Yeah, it’ll work. I just need to give players the tools to help themselves succeed.”