by Ron Edwards
Copyright 2003 Adept PressBlack Fire is presented as an example of Gamist role-playing design, as described in my essay, Gamism: Step On Up. It's intended to separate the among-player and among-character interactions into two distinctive rules and behavior-sets, as well as to permit the group to set its own standards for the degrees of competition in both levels.
For Black Fire, "What is role-playing" is answered in pure Gamist terms: do you have the statistical and strategic ability actually to play with any degree of success? It's built to shift the sands under everyone's feet, such that one mentally has to understand what a variety of numbers do. More subtly, it also demands that the group have their shit together enough to arrive at a Gamist Social Contract which everyone can enjoy.
Acknowledgments: many thanks to Mike Holmes, Clinton R. Nixon, Ralph Mazza, Tod Olson, Julie Stauffer, and Maura Byrne for a variety of comments and criticisms. I swear before God and everybody that I had decided upon a "swords and skulls on dice" mechanic before I saw or even heard of the game Swords and Skulls by Eric Alexander, published in Random Order Comics & Games #3 in April 2003. He gets precedent, though, so he gets an acknowledgment here.
Influences on this design are best described as The Pool meets Alyria meets Sin (a game in development by Bill Masek, which provided the notion of a centralized resource pool). There's certainly some Charnel Gods and Trollbabe in there, and a bit of the old board game Hero from Yaquinto Games and the modern card game Dungeoneer.
Design notes: Black Fire is definitely in a sketchier state than Mongrel was for the Sim essay, but I think that's predictable considering their differing GNS focuses. A Gamist RPG has to meet its specific metagame agenda (i.e. type of Gamism), and that carries such weight that any and all other details are secondary. You're not going to get anywhere with any further prose until we know whether the whole concept fires people up. Like Mongrel, Black Blood is in the state that I'd take it to on paper before playtesting, and I wouldn't write another word without that playtesting.
Structure of play
What it looks likeA GM and a few players, at least three, sit around a big table. Each player has two personalized d6's with little skull and sword stickers on them, and there's a big pile of black d6's in the middle of the table somewhere. The GM has a set of scratch paper, possibly 3x5 cards or similar, with little diagrams scrawled on them.
Also, there's a big map that everyone can see; it includes all sorts of fantasy-type geography and communities, with a shadow or superimposition of a corpse sprawled across it; it also has some little counters on the map representing monsters and goals. There are also markers showing where the player-characters are.
Two types of playPlaying Up. This is kind of an "everyone's a GM" phase in terms of looking down on the setting as a whole and adding elements. It's prep during play itself. Here's when all Goals announced during the last Playing In phase get established and detailed onto the map, when new Monsters are created and (secretly) placed on the map, when Monsters and Goals get storymapped, and when most Wounds are healed. All player-characters may be moved to new places on the setting map, and in some circumstances, a player may proclaim his or her character dead during this phase.
One of the most important tasks during this phase is storymapping, which is to say, adding persons and relationships to the Goals and Monsters being created at this time. This is a group activity - the GM says something like, "All right, we have a father with three sons," and someone else says, "And the middle son is just returning from exile," and someone else says, "And the advisor is scheming to kill the eldest son," and so on. All Goals and Monsters have associated storymaps.
For both Goals and Monsters, at first, all that's public about the finalized storymap is where it is on the setting map. Its content will become clearer during the Playing In phase, just as a character encounters situations and NPCs during traditional play
Playing In. This is plain old role-playing of the type we all know and love: the player says stuff like "I go here," and "I do this," and the GM says, "You see this," and "He attacks you" and so on. All the usual resolution rolls and in-character dialogue apply in full. During this time, player-characters discover things, strive toward their Goals, encounter adversity including Monsters, meet non-player characters, run into one another, cause trouble, announce Goals, and anything like any of this.
In general, think of this phase as when the characters get enmeshed into the storymaps and get all riled up about what they find there.
Playing In sometimes has to rocket back and forth across scenes that are widely separated on the setting map, but play proceeds such that players roll for resolutions at the same times.
The actual procedures and sequences of both kinds of play are detailed further in the system section.
The Setting and the Goals of Play
Setting stuffI'm calling the setting Czegara and hoping to get kind of an Estonian, Scandinavian + Russian feel to the whole thing. Except that everyone's kind of beige and generic in coloring, much like the D&D3E rulebook.
The whole situation is equivalent to Ragnarok, in a kind of video-game intro way. The trickster god went and killed the harmony/accord god, the other gods have gone mad or are otherwise running around chasing themselves, the wars among the lands of men have begun, and monsters walk. The other gods' aspects have all altered horribly and are at one another's throats. Sooner or later they will destroy the world.
Design notes: Obviously I'd have to provide a bunch of names for all this and file the serial numbers off a little more cleanly.The body of the slain god actually lies across the landscape. That is, it's not physically present, but metaphysically, outlined in real space in the shape of a vast twisted corpse, whole areas of the lands have been corrupted. Monsters emanate from these areas, or, metaphysically speaking from the god's rotting parts.
So the whole setting is in turmoil. Player-characters are people who've been pushed to the wall - lives destroyed, lost everything, and who now have risen against all odds and seek to reshape the world as they see fit.
Goals of playFor characters, "goals" are actually a concrete in-game mechanic. Players may identify and state Goals for their characters which then become in-game sources of conflict and benefits. The number of magnitude of the possible Goals to achieve is limited, however, so these benefits are thereby necessarily limited in the long term. Not everyone can achieve the higher-level Goals.
For characters, there are lots of things to choose among for "win" or "success" conditions. The game allows the people to customize as they see fit among the following:
Players are expected to be intense, and the GM is expected to be quick on his feet
Design notes: The point is to get away from (a) any kind of arbitrary Victory Points or (b) endless improvement for its own sake. Yet I also wanted to avoid the notion of meaningless secondary goals that have nothing to do with the "real one," which would prompt people to ignore them. The solution seemed to me to have Endgame come into it essentially regardless of whether the players are trying to get there.
Player-charactersA player-character begins desperate, driven, and destroyed. They own nothing but some clothes and a weapon. They have no friends and no resources. Everything they used to own or value is lost to them.
Begin with a brief identifying phrase, perhaps as simple as "farmer who lost five sons to the war," or "teenage girl with one blue and one green eye." Don't disfigure the character at this point; that'll happen soon enough.
Character diceEvery player-character includes two six-sided dice with blank faces. A beginning character is provided with six symbols, which may be chosen as skulls or swords as the player chooses. The six symbols may be distributed across the available twelve faces as the player chooses. A given die face may contain up to two symbols. Each die must begin with at least one symbol.
A player may add either a skull or a sword to his or her character dice by spending a Black Point during play.
One more thingThere's gotta be something that customizes a character's pre-roll tactics in an interesting and usable way. I want to avoid Drama-only descriptors (Sorc, Trollbabe), but I also want to avoid things like weapon choices which are obviously going to devolve to one best option and a bunch of crappy ones. If anyone can read over the resolution system and suggest something that isn't clunky, that can be modified by a choice here during character creation, that'd be cool.
ColorIf the character dice include one or more swords, the character description must include one or more leather or other straps in his or her clothing or ornaments. If the character dice include one or more skulls, the character description must include tatters, whether hair, ornaments, or clothing. Symbols added later carry the same requirements, if a sword is added to a character with no swords, or a skull is added to a character with no skulls.
Design notes: Don't get it? Then you're just lame. The illustrations would do the job, believe me, if they were just 10% as intense as what's in my head.
Stuff that happens to youThe Bad: Curses, Wounds, Scars - these are all basically the same, mechanically. They saddle characters' resolution rolls with Penalty dice.
The Good: Achieving Goals provides benefits only in in-game terms, no mechanics improvement.
Improving one's character is accomplished by spending a metagame resource called Black Points; ultimately, a character's personalized 2d6 can be filled up with skull and/or sword symbols. Once this happens, the player has two options:
1. Just retire the character.
2. Keep the character, but now Monsters are created each phase just for that character (in addition to the usual one), stepping up in Target Number each time until they are the Gods - at which point Endgame occurs.
DeathCharacters may be killed by Monsters, by one another, or during the Playing Up phase by the character after failing a Goal. It's either a good or bad thing, depending on the player's notions of winning. Again, there's a choice: start a new player-character or become a junior-GM, creating and playing Monsters.
Design notes: The whole point of this section is that which feature of the game matters most is up to the player, and each one carries different consequences. If getting stuff for your character is most important, then announce and achieve Goals. If it's maximizing character effectiveness, then fill up your dice faces with symbols. If it's about being the last man standing, or about saving the world, then do whatever it takes to get Endgame going. I'm confident that group consensus about this is either (a) easy or (b) unnecessary.
Example player-charactersThe numbers on the tables below are just place-holders; the actual dice used should be blank.
Romirrha - a young aristocrat with a slight cough
Goal: rule clique of necromancers
Marzun - a brawny bald warrior
Goal: destroy citadel
Kell - a mad-eyed woman
No starting Goal
Design notes: Again, I think each character needs "one more thing" in system terms that will give them more strategic pre-roll distinctiveness during resolution, and thus more personality and player-commitment during character creation.
Playing UpHere's the order for this phase:
1. Any characters who failed to achieve a Goal in the previous Playing In phase meet their fates. Everyone except the character's player may contribute to narrating this fate - specifically, the character's loss of all in-game benefits, and his or her physical and/or mental humiliation. They may not include the character's death in the narration, but the character's player may elect to kill the character at any point during this process, once it has begun.
2. All characters' Minor Wounds are removed (healed) and their Major Wounds converted to Minor Wounds.
3. Goals announced during the Playing In phase now created. Counters representing them are placed on the setting map and storymapped. This is carried out by the GM announcing the map's basis (two or more characters and their relationship, as well as perhaps a short situation statement), and going around the circle of players once, adding elements and situations. The final map is retained by the GM.
4. Monsters are also created and Storymapping is carried out just as for Goals. The GM does not place the Monster counters on the map; that will come as player-characters encounter them during the next Playing In phase.
5. Player-characters may be moved by the players to a new place on the setting map.
Design notes: All of this would be considerably altered by playtesting, I think. It's just a starting point for the process.
Playing InAs stated earlier, this is basic "Player says what character does" and "GM says what you see" role-playing. The GM is responsible for playing all the NPCs on the storymaps, as well as any others he or she has prepared or makes up, to the hilt; for bringing in the Monsters (and their impact on the Goal storymaps) with great ferocity; and for generally managing things to get the player-characters as engaged as possible.
Typical events for the Playing In phase include meeting tons of NPCs, fighting Monsters, conducting various negotiatory or investigative rolls, striving to deal with Goals or Vows, getting Wounded or Killed, announcing a Goal or Vow, and traveling around on the setting map.
The GM initiates a scene with the player to his or her left, and they get the character into some kind of decision-point, then play moves to the next player. Once one circuit is made, everyone rolls for his or her own little conflict, and so on, around and around. The point is to have all the characters' main resolution rolls occurring simultaneously.
The "cuts" from player to player are very formal - it is literally against the rules for a player to roll twice in a row without going around the circle. It's also allowed for a player to say "pass," which carries no penalty and will probably happen when everyone is most interested in what happens to one particular character.
This same procedure is conducted when characters are in the same scene as well as in different scenes.
Design notes: I'm still thinking about ways in which player-characters' scenes might be more closely linked, but I'm hesitant to connect separate storymaps Ö and not all player-characters (perhaps none!) are going to be associated with Goals anyway.All narration of outcomes is conducted by the GM, but he or she is free to take suggestions from players. Players have no ultimate rights of narration at all.
ResolutionConfronted with a problem or taking some action, the player announces an action for the character. Announced actions are designated either skull or sword actions, with final judgment on this matter reserved for the GM.
Sword actions include:
Both the type of the action (skull or sword) and the general time-scale of the action's effects must be agreed upon before any dice are used, with the GM having the final say.
Design notes: See, this is right where that extra level of granularity would be involved - before the rolls.
Black Pool diceA set of black six-sided dice are available to everyone during play, starting at fifteen. These dice are drawn for resolution and rolled in the following steps.
1. The GM pulls Penalty dice from the Black Pool based on the Complications, Wounds, Scars, and Curses associated with the characters in conflict.
2. The player pulls as many of the remaining dice as he or she desires and rolls them in tandem with the character dice, and the GM rolls the Complication dice. Any matching values among the player's dice are removed and, with the Complication dice, set aside to be returned to the Black Pool later.
3. From the player's remaining dice, the resulting value (see Reading the Dice, below) is compared to the Target Number.
4. If any of the player's Black Pool dice show a value of "1," then all of these dice are removed from play and does not return to the Black Pool. Also, if the conflict happens to be a combat with a Monster, then the character receives a Minor Wound for each "1" showing at this step.
5. Any Complication dice, as well as any dice which they removed from the player's roll, are returned to the Black Pool. The GM narrates the outcome of the action.
Reading the diceThe total value for a player's roll is determined by reading the Character dice in conjunction with the Black Pool dice.
Compare the type of announced action to the result on the character dice. If two symbols matching the action are showing, then add up all the pips on the Black Pool dice. If only one such symbol is showing, add the highest Black Pool die value to 1 per remaining die. If no such symbol is showing, then each Black Pool die is assigned a value of "1" for purposes of the total value. These do not count as Wounds and are not removed from the Pool unless they really do show a rolled value of 1.
Example: A character announces a Curse on a target.
The player pulls four Black Pool dice and rolls them with the two character dice, resulting in 1, 3, 4, 5. If the character dice show two or more skulls, the total is 13. If they show one skull, the total is 8 (5 + 1 + 1 + 1). If they show only swords or blanks, the total is 4 (1 + 1 + 1 + 1).
Let's say, instead, though, that the target of the Curse already carries a Complication of 1. In this case, the character has a Penalty die to contend with. The GM would have pulled one Black Pool die from the Black Pool, before the roll, and rolled it when the player rolled. If he or she had rolled (e.g.) a 4, then the player's rolled 4 would be removed from the tally, leaving the player with potential values of 9 (for two or more skulls), 7 (for one skull), and 3 (for none). If the GM had rolled a 2 or a 6, the Complication die would have no effect on the outcome.
Roll totals are compared with a target number. Against a Goal, they express success or failure. Against a Monster, they express harming the Monster or being harmed oneself. Both Monsters and Goals carry their own target numbers.
Any conflict that is not a direct attempt at a Goal or a fight with a Monster is treated generically with a starting Target Number of 8. This Generic Target Number may increase, unilaterally for all purposes, during play (see Twisting the Knife below).
Black PointsCharacters begin play with 0 Black Points; they are accumulated and spent during play.
Black Points are gained by (a) other player-characters achieving their Goals, (b) vowing to prevent another character's Goal from being fulfilled, (c) achieving (b) successfullly, (d) killing Monsters, and (e) being Scarred by a Monster. Black Points are gained immediately.
Black Points are spent for (a) re-rolling one's character dice while Playing In, (b) adding a sword or skull symbol to one's character dice while Playing Up, (c) replacing lost dice to the Black Pool at any time, or (d) burning (removing) dice from the Black Pool at any time.
Conflict among player-charactersPlayers must write down their action type and show it to the GM before the roll; they do not reveal it to one another until after the roll. The exception is when one player-character has used a sword action to gain a tactical advantage over the other, in which case one player is told the other's action type. Also, Scars are treated as Complications against the character who carries them if the other character has used a skull action to gain knowledge of him or her.
The Target Number for a player-character to be hit by another player-character always equals the current Target Number of the player-character's Goal. If he or she currently has no goal, the Target Number is equal to the current generic Target Number.
The Black Pool dice are always fully and equally divided among the player-characters after all Penalty dice have been pulled. The odd die, if present, is removed from the Pool.
On the table below, the "skull" or "sword" applies for Skull or Sword actions, respectively, which did indeed roll one or more Skulls (Swords).
Penalty diceThese are Black Pool dice that are pulled from the Black Pool before the player pulls his or her dice. Any values that arise on the Penalty dice are removed from the player's roll on a 1:1 basis.
Penalty dice are associated with Wounds, Scars, Curses, and Complications.
Wounds. Minor Wounds are acquired from several sources: a Monster's retaliatory strike, conflicts with other player-characters, and potentially from a variety of failed tasks. Individual Minor Wounds have no effect on the character. Major Wounds are acquired only by being successfully struck by a Monster or by another player-character. A Major Wound introduces one Penalty die into every task attempted by the character. A third Minor Wound converts all three into a Major Wound. Three Major Wounds kill a character.
Design notes: I'm still thinking about how armor might work in the game, but I'd really like to avoid it being a major strategic element.Recovery from Wounds occurs mainly during the Playing Up phase: all Minor Wounds go away and all Major Wounds are converted into Minor Wounds. During the Playing In phase, the same effect can occur through GM fiat (e.g. the player-character stays with a kindly healer), or by one player-character succeeding in a Sword action to heal another.
Scars. Scars are acquired by retreating during a fight with a Monster. A scar confers one Penalty die in future conflicts with that Monster, as well as during player-character to player-character conflicts, if the opponent successfully divines the nature of the Scar through a skull action.
Scars are also associated with physical and emotional changes in the character: whitened hair, nightmares, a missing eye, extensive scarring, and similar.
Curses. Curses are acquired through the actions of player-characters and certain Monsters. They are specialized vs. a given stated outcome, which may or may not correspond to a current Goal or Vow. A Curse confers one Penalty die to all actions related to that stated outcome.
Curses may be lifted through skull actions. Note that a Curse cannot assign a Penalty die against its own lifting or against figuring out its nature.
Complications. associated with a specific unit of a Monster or Goal storymap. They are used for any roll made regarding any aspect of the storymap for that Monster or Goal. A storymap may carry multiple Complications scattered across its units.
Complications may be removed from a storymap by destroying the units with which they are associated. Complications use the Generic Target Number.
Death. During the Playing In phase, a character may die from Major Wounds acquired from fighting Monsters or other player-characters. During the Playing Up phase, a player may choose to have his or her character die rather than suffer the humiliations incurred by failing at a Goal in the previous Playing In phase.
1. Just make up a new character during the next Playing Up phase. This one has a Scar as well as all the Black Points from the old one. You may spend all the Black Points and remove the Scar.
2. Direct all Monsters during the Playing Up phases, via notes to the GM. During the Playing In phases, play one Monster of your choice.
Design notes: I like this option because it allows the group to customize the degree of GM vs. player adversity.
GoalsPlayer-characters may name Goals during the Playing In phase, and may begin with one stated Goal. Goals are always optional. It's possible for a given player-character never to name a Goal, or sometimes to have one and sometimes not. Naming a Goal per se is announced publicly, but its actual content may either be announced publicly or secretly only to the GM, as the player sees fit.
Goals are verbally constructed from word-lists available to everyone, consisting of one group of verbs and one group of objects (in the grammatical sense); chosen terms are removed from the lists.
Design notes: The objects list above would be a bunch of setting terms: the Red Rock Castle, the Iron Crown of Might, that sort of thing. I'm also thinking that Goals might be made even more specific relative to the setting map, as in where to go and what to do, much like the Quest cards in Dungeoneer.The listed objects also include Monsters that are brought into existence during play.
Goals are expressed as Minor, Major, or Ultimate, which sets the Goal's Target Number. They also include a storymap, which is created during the Play Up phase following the announcement of the Goal.
The number of Minor Goals that may exist in the game-world equal the total number of player-characters plus one. The number of Major Goals that may exist in the game-world equal the number of player-characters minus one. Only one Ultimate Goal may exist. A player-character may only name a Major Goal if he or she has achieved a Minor one, and may only name an Ultimate Goal if he or she has achieved a Major one. A given character may achieve more than one Minor and/or Major Goal.
Design notes: I'm not sure whether I explained that right, but the idea is that a slight competition may occur regarding Major Goals, and competition very well be fierce regarding Ultimate Goals. But the point is that if a Goal is failed, it's "off the map," so to speak - hence if someone is striving for an Ultimate Goal, you can't announce another one, but if he fails, then you can announce another one. But if someone gets the Ultimate Goal, then no one can announce another one.Achieving a Goal confers many benefits to the character in terms of in-game resources and consequences, possibly including but not limited to:
Failing a Goal results in the character losing the following:
Design notes: This is a big deal in most Gamist play I've encountered. Once you've taken the character through some adversity and made some decisions on his or her behalf, it's awfully hard to sit through a session of unrestrained gratuitous abuse following a failure. I wanted to put this effect straight into the mechanics, above-board, and integrated with the reward system of the game.
VowsA Vow is an announced intention to prevent another player-character from achieving his or her Goal. No specific method or action is included in a Vow. Announcing a Vow gains the character one Black Point.
The Vowing character must know the other character's Goal (method of acquiring this knowledge can be pretty metagame-y).
A Vow is not a Goal and cannot be combined with a Goal. Incompatible Goals may be announced, but they do not constitute Vows simply because they are incompatible.
Achieving a Vow earns the player-character a Black Point, and the Goal in question is considered failed.
Design notes: With any luck at all, Vows set up a whole different venue for competition in parallel with the potential competition for Goals.
MonstersA new Monster is brought into play at the beginning of every Playing Up phase, including the first one.
Making good Monsters is composed of three things: giving it a cool name, attaching it to an existing Goal storymap, and playing it hard and nastily during the Playing In phase.
Like Goals, a Monster are rated with a unique Target Number, begin play attached to a storymap, and may acquire Complications. An existing Monster may also be stated as part of a new announced Goal's object, e.g. "To destroy the Red Fiend."
Monsters' whereabouts are not announced; they may be divined through Skull actions during the Playing In phase, or they simply "appear" during that phase.
Monsters destroy the storymap components of Goals, along lines of connection, up to and including the central unit of the Goal itself. If this happens, the character is considered to have failed his or her Goal. A Monster may attack any Goal storymap, but begins play attached to a particular one. Don't confuse this attachment with the Monster's own personal storymap.
Fighting MonstersKilling a Monster gains the character one Black Point. A Monster may wound and possibly kill a character, even if the character's roll succeeds.
A character in combat with a Monster may choose to escape the conflict by accepting a Scar, which also earns the character a Black Point.
Some Monsters may be commanded, but they only obey for one action, once per Playing In phase.
Monster TypesFiends - can't be commanded, may pose as storymap units, Wounds gained by rolling 1's are considered Curses rather than Minor Wounds.
Undead - may be commanded using skulls. Undead may be created from characters killed during play. Conflicts with Undead include player-characters' Scars as penalty dice.
Beasts - may be commanded using swords; treat 1's rolled in this attempt to be Minor Wounds just as in combat resolution.
Haunts - return during the following Playing Up phase after being defeated by swords; they can be permanently defeated using skulls, but carry two extra Complication dice in skull-based conflict.
Outlaws - may be commanded using swords; if a player-character sacrifices a in-game benefit (i.e. gained by achieving a Goal), he or she may command the Outlaws an additional time during a given Playing In phase.
Gods - h'm
Design notes: The Gods should be damned interesting Monsters, so some playtesting should be necessary to find some element of the system which they exploit.
Twisting the KnifeThe GM may Twist the Knife in two circumstances: (1) a player-character achieves a Goal, and (2) the Black Pool is reduced to 0 dice. In the latter case, after Twisting, the GM replenishes the Black Pool with 10 dice.
Twisting the Knife always includes all of the following:
Design notes: I always wanted a mechanic like this in Games like Tunnels & Trolls or Ninja Burger, completely overtly saying, "It's getting worse, you know."
Playtesting ConcernsDesign notes:
1. Is the storymapping practical? If not, what alternatives exist? I'd like to keep some of the fun of storymapping from Alyria, which always works really well, and this does seem like a good angle to bring to Gamist play, spreading around the source both for adversity and for meaty Explorative content. Could little cards with pre-made maps on them be used, and people fill in the boxes' content?
2. How well does the Currency of the Black Pool work? I really like the concept, and I'm afraid that its novelty will interfere with people's ability to judge its efficacy. The point is to introduce dwindling effectiveness for the group in the future against immediate, significant gain in the present.
3. Is Playing In really role-playing? I want it to be, and I can see myself getting into it easily, but how well would it work for other people?
4. How many people should be involved? The more the better, in terms of the checks and balances on things like Goals and Black Pool usage, but that also means more negotiation and back-and-forth on storymapping, maybe.