RPG Design - The Heat is On!

Sometimes it doesn't take much to solve problems in design. It can even open up new design space. But every change needs to be done carefully and checked if it also makes thematic sense.

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In the last article we explored how it makes sense to take a step back from the designing process. Now we need to step forward again and solve some of the issues we identified in the playtest. What good is a playtest if we don't learn from it?

The first thing I wanted to solve, is how story is progressed. The gameplay so far was just my agent going from place to place and questioning people. It is okay if it happens in the beginning (since that's how investigations work anyway). But in the long term I need to introduce some sort of conflict. The system shined once I went to the old manor and had actual problems to solve and obstacles to overcome.

But the conflict should be introduced somewhat organically and as consequence to the actions of the agents. Bonus points if I can somehow link it to the artefact. The solution I came up with is Notice. And as an added bonus it also solved another problem for free.

Have you even noticed?

The idea isn't something spectacularly new. If I'm going to steal be inspired by Blades in the Dark, let's do it some more. Blades knows a concept of Heat. As your crew commit crimes, they might attract attention. Especially if things don't go smoothly and they leave evidence behind. This can lead to members getting arrested and so on.

Notice is a similar concept. As the agents work for a clandestine agency, they shouldn't attract this attention. But having strange unfamiliar people going around from door to door and asking question is surely going to raise some suspicion. It is not directly illegal so Heat might not be thematically appropriate.

A high notice isn't directly putting the agents into prison, but it rather introduced complications and obstacles against them. If they knocked on too many door, they may stay closed.

You had to make it complicated

So what to do then with the Notice? Thematically it should introduce an obstacle to the agents that they have to overcome. Imagine that after you have found a powerful artefact some days later some people arrive in town and ask around. In order to protect your new find, you either use the artefact against them to make them leave you alone. Or try to turn the town against them. It will start small, but it will intensify the longer they stay. That is the kind of narrative I want to evoke - although from the receiving side.

A way I have found is taken from Mythic Game Master Emulator (MGME). A.D.A. has a similar structure, in that it goes from scene to scene (although probably all solo play is doing something similar). It even encourages scene play by giving instruction on how to construct such scenes. With Notice I can now introduce Scene Complication. MGME calls these "Alter Scene" and "Interrupt Scene". In essence it can either change how the scene is playing out - by introducing an obstacle - or it can completely change the scene.

The higher the Notice the more frequent these complications will occur. And it is really simple. Before you actually go and play the scene you roll a d6 and add the Notice. If it is greater or equal 8 there's a complication. That means at the beginning of the case the agents are relatively safe. There's no suspicious yet. Just some strangers arriving in town. Tourists maybe.

What to do with all that space?

As I mentioned in the beginning. This change opened up some more design space. The player can choose themselves how they want to make the scene complicated, but it also let's me give them prompts. These prompts can then be tailored to the artefact.

I took an approach like that in Ironsworn: Delve. When you roll for a scene complication you look up the result on a generic table of complication or you look them up on the table of the choosen Singularity. Similar to the Theme and Domain tables. When you swap the Singularity for another, the agents might encounter very different things. And at the same time it also gives opportunity for the agents to uncover new clues on what the artefact might actually be.

I'm really a big fan of these Theme and Domain tables - they made a triumphant return in Starforged as well. Such an elegant design to introduce thematic prompts that are interchangeable. And it is also easy for the designer (i.e. me) to come up with new stuff, since I don't have to fill a big table just a small amount and the system still works.

Don't stop there

As an added bonus, Notice also solved a bit of a problem I had with pushing a test. To recap the old rules: You can push any test and get 2 additional dice, but you have to get a condition in return.

The problem with that is twofold. First, it creates an awkward rules question. Do I get the condition before or after the test and does that condition than influence the test. Since every condition that is linked to the same trait you are doing your action with, removes 1 die. So you would net only 1 additional die, which is way worse for the cost.

The second issue is, that the cost is immediate and very steep. Since you get not that many dice in the first place (a problem for another time) you often want to push your roll to get at least 1-2 dice in the first place (basically counteracting all the negative modifiers). So it was still very likely you would suffer another condition after the roll.

Thematically it makes sense. You push yourself so hard, that you get physical (or mental) injuries from that. But on the other hand the effect should probably not be immediate. Similarly to muscle aches, you feel them the day after not when you strain them.

A tangent about rewards

I will go now into a bit of a (mathematical) tangent. Is the reward even good? Getting 2 dice doesn't seem much. And it has to be decided beforehand. What about a re-roll? Wouldn't this be much better.

Lets have a look. Consider the chance of succeeding 50% with one die (Partial Success and Success combined). Then we can calculate the probability of succeeding for a different amount of base dice and specific bonuses for pushing. The result would be this.

Base Dice Reroll +1 die +2 dice +3 dice +4 dice
1 75% 75% 87% 94% 97%
2 94% 87% 94% 97% 98%
3 98% 94% 97% 98% 99%
4 99% 97% 98% 99% 99%

Disclaimer: I wrote a little program to get to the probabilities since I couldn't be bothered to get to them numerically. It is not that hard, but I was lazy.

Anyway. What can be seen, that the probability for a reroll is the same when the bonus is the same as the base dice. This makes sense intuitively. The more base dice roll you have, the difference becomes smaller as well (there's a diminishing return on succeedind). You can never succeed 100% - there's always a chance to fail. The most time you will roll 1-2 dice so a +2 bonus is giving you the most benefits overall.

Especially if you consider critical successes. The chances for a critical success with reroll only increase marginally, whereas they improve drastically with bonus dice. This becomes clear when you have only 1 base die. You will never be able to roll a critical with reroll. But with a +2 bonus, you now have a 7% chance.

So in the end I decided for the +2 bonus.

Tangent over.

Improving Pushing

The improvments for pushing now become clear. Instead of gaining a condition the agents gain Notice. It can also make thematically sense. Their (maybe) forceful effort creates suspicious activity. For example they push a roll to intimidate a guy into revealing some information. It isn't that subtle anymore and maybe someone saw the agents and is now spreading rumors in town.

With that it also becomes apparent, that we changed the paradigm of a push. Instead of having an immediate consequence we delay the consequence to later. It creates a bit of friction. Where the agents witnessed or not? Can they get away with it?


Introducing Notice opened design space for me, that I could explore further. At the moment only pushing increased the Notice. But you could also think about adding Notice as a consequence for failed action. Most probably during investigation. Maybe there's also a way to reduce Notice, but with a consequence. What it also opens is to maybe create some sort of "difficulty" for cases. The more ticks you have on the clock the more times you can push so making the investigation easier. You see, there are more ideas to explore.

It also let me enforce the theme more. Artefacts now have a direct effect to the agents during complications. They are not just an unseen force, they can actually take "action" in the story. But instead of restricting the player into a specific storyline, I can let them experience in different ways.

And all that for just a small change.

As a side effect, it also let me understand why certain things and systems are in place in other systems. When solving your own problems you gain insight on maybe similar issues other designers had.

But when I look at the game so far, it looks like a chimera of different game systems. If this is a good or bad thing remains to be seen.


Just as a side note. I've also added some questions to be answered in the showdown. This gives the player maybe a hint on what they should focus on during the play. Answering more of the questions gives you a benefit.

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