I’m liking the Forged in the Dark games I’ve recently encountered. I’m two sessions into a John Harper’s Blades in the Dark game with my wife and GM Jörg, did our first score, and I must have listened to thirty hours of Sean Nittner’s Actual Play podcast based on the YouTube channel based on the Twitch stream, where he plays with GM Stras Acimovic, Jenn Martin, Misha B, and Jahmal Brown, and they play Stras Acimovic and John LeBoef-Little’s Band of Blades.
I don’t think the setting is all that important. We all know that rules and setting can be separate, and we all know that some books have rules and setting tightly intertwined. In this case, Blades in the Dark is about a gang in a sort of magic steam & electricity haunted London, and Band of Blades is about a group of soldiers in a sort of magic guns & undead military fantasy campaign (think Glenn Cook’s The Black Company). Both use the mechanics first introduced by John Harper. I feel that like in the brilliantly short Lady Blackbird, Harper manages to pull together the strands that are all out there in the various games being played right now and transforming it into something new but vaguely recognisable.
In short, the game uses d6 dice pools. Your traits determine how many dice you use, add one if somebody is helping you, add one if you’re pushing yourself, multiple people roll their own dice if it’s a group action. All these extra dice are paid for with “stress”: helping another character costs 1 stress, pushing yourself costs 2 stress, group actions cost the leader 1 stress for each failed roll by a group member. The highest roll in the dice pool determines the result. 1–3 is a failure, 4–5 is a success with a consequence, 6 is a success, two sixes is a critical success. Consequences can be resisted with more rolls, and if you don’t get a success in the resistance roll, that causes even more stress. And when you’re stressed out, you start acquiring permanent “trauma”: changes to your character that end up putting your character out of the game.
The three outcomes are not new: succeed, fail, and mixed results are something we’ve seen in Powered by the Apocalypse games. Instead of being very specifically tied to Moves listed on a character sheet, the consequences here are tied to rulings made by the game master (GM). I get the feeling Chris McDowell wrote about the simplicity of his Into the Odd system where the dice providing a simple 50:50 chance was good enough since all that you needed to make it work was to adjudicate the consequences accordingly. The Forged in the Dark games do just that: there is some necessarily vague guidance on how to adjudicate based on “Position” (controlled, risky, desperate – i.e. how bad is it going to get when you fail) and “Effect” (limited, standard, great – i.e. how good is it going to get when you succeed). Since you also get that dice pool instead of a single die, the simplicity McDowell was talking about is lost, but the core idea remains: since the GM is going to adjudicate anyway, why not entrust them with it and just provide some guidance so that the table knows what’s going on.
Another fun element are the encounter roll and flashbacks. The goal here is to skip all the planning of a heist or an operation. Start playing immediately! Do a simple the encounter roll and there’s your starting position (controlled, risky, desperate). The GM improvises the first scene of the adventure based on the starting position rolled and some info the players provided beforehand. If the players would have benefited from some planning, they can always call for a flashback scene where they did just that, and based on how obvious or improbable it seems, all they pay for it is more stress. Stress is the measure of all things.
I think that basically covers it. The above should also make obvious that most encounters on the adventure are handled by a very small number of rolls. Sometimes, just a single roll is enough for the scene: you explain how you overcome the obstacle, roll some dice, maybe take some damage (“harm”) or face some other consequences, perhaps the fiction changes, and the game moves on. If you want to resist the consequences, there’s a second roll to made. For big bad bosses or more complicated activities, multiple rolls might be necessary, but there’s practically no difference between those rolls being in the same scene or in another scene. It reminds me of the simple “Bloody Vs” tests in Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel.
I used to be fond of saying that I aim for the fights in my classic D&D games to be short: two rounds is ideal. I hate endless slog fests. It’s why I think that Save or Die effects are so important in D&D. You don’t actually die if you run these fights a certain way, you just start using up “neutralise poison” and “raise dead” spells, and you force players to avoid simple hack & slash fights. When their hit points are low, they fear the sword; when they have more hit points, they fear the level drain; when they have more levels, they fear the poison; and on it goes. The simple “Bloody Vs” tests in Burning Wheel, or these rolls in Powered by the Apocalypse and Forged in the Dark games, are even better: they mandate a resolution in one or two rolls, and then you just move on. Next scene!
My enthusiasm is perhaps not entirely surprising given that I just finished a D&D 5E Humblewood campaign with plenty of casual players that didn’t know the rules like the back of their hands (and they also struggled with no translation of the rules being available, I think) resulting in drawn out fights where everything just slows to a crawl. I’m easily bored as a player and this doesn’t work well for me. I start volunteering for session report write-ups that I do while the game is still ongoing, that’s how many spare cycles I have.
More interesting combat rules don’t make a slow fight more interesting. The fix to a slow fight is less roles and moving on to the next scene, I feel.
Another thing I’m trying right now is to have less people in the game. We’re just three people now: GM and two players. Perhaps we had too many people in that D&D game and that exacerbated the problem.