Creating multiple games based on the same rule foundation (Forged in the Dark a.k.a. FitD) has caused me to think hard about the way specific mechanics affect gameplay—and how I might want to manipulate those effects for different results. Today’s post I’m going to review some design choices I made with core roll mechanic for the pirate adventure Tides of Gold versus the cyberpunk rebellion Karma in the Dark.
The Action Roll
Actions rolls are probably the most frequent roll you will make in a game. In the FitD system, action rolls generally play out like this: you face an obstacle, you describe how you overcome it, and you roll a dice pool based on the action you want to use. The outcome of your roll is influenced by three traits: the highest die you roll (e.g. 1-6); the position of your action (how dangerous it is, which affects the severity of consequences); and your effect (how much your roll achieves against the obstacle). In the core FitD system your position can be controlled, risky, or desperate, and your effect can be limited, standard, or great. Additionally, your effect is based on effect factors like your quality/tier, scale, and potency.
Both of my games alter these core mechanics in different ways.
Karma in the Dark keeps the same 3 traits for a roll (result, position, effect), but it changes how one of them is determined. Since Karma was inspired by the cyberpunk genre, it focuses on power imbalances, rebelling against the system, and selling out. To reinforce those themes, the game changes the effect factors. Your effectiveness is no longer based on purely external traits like item quality, but instead are based on how much your action draws upon different sources of power: relevance (social power), expertise (knowledge power), and press (coercive power).
In this framework, all actions happen within the context of power dynamics. Additionally, depending upon who you face, you might find yourself at a baseline of “no effect” because of the innate power imbalance of the world. An individual person has a relevance of 0-3, while a faction agent has a relevance of 3-7. Since these elements of power are imbalanced, you are more likely to find yourself searching for ways to compensate for this inequality by leveraging other effect factors (e.g. using violence or exploiting a secret to tap into press) or pushing yourself.
This change combined with the core FitD system means many action rolls feel like a tactical maneuver. Actions take some deliberate thought, fictional positioning, and leveraging of scarce resources. This slower feel is intended. The mission-based, cyberpunk themes of Karma match a more strategic approach to action.
Tides of Gold takes a completely different approach to changing the action roll: there is no position, no effect, and instead of using a d6 dice pool, you roll 2d6 and add your action as a modifier. It looks and plays much more like the rolls from Powered by the Apocalypse moves. This change is one of the most controversial parts of the game's design, so I want to explore why I did it.
Tides aims for a very different feel than either Blades in the Dark or Karma in the Dark. Rather than desperate criminals or cyberpunk rebels, you play sailors seeking adventure on the high seas. I wanted the game to feel more like a Saturday-morning cartoon, with bombastic descriptions, larger-than-life moves, and heroic accomplishment. The traditional FitD action roll didn’t really support this tone. How do I mean?
Someone once explained why they didn’t like most Forged in the Dark games and it stuck with me: they found that the position/effect aspect led to more out of character discussion than they wanted, and seemed to slow down the pace of each roll as a result. And it’s true! In a system like say D&D, I state what skill I use to attack, roll a die, and add the appropriate modifier. No debate necessary. Rolls move quickly.
As I thought about the feel of Tides, I wanted to keep the narrative element but speed up the average roll. This led me to the decision to eliminate position and effect, and fall back on a more traditional model of: roll dice, add modifier. To keep some narrative feeling, however, I knew I wanted to keep the idea of describing what you do and using the related action.
The question became then: what size of die and what range of modifiers? I knew I wanted to keep a system of failing forward (i.e. failure with consequences, mixed success with consequences, full success). I started to run the math on different possibilities. At one point I planned on a d20 model. As someone who likes mixed successes the best, it seemed like a good number to minimize the impact of positive modifiers. As I tested it out, the d20 felt too swingy and the low impact of a modifier actually became a problem. Part of playbooks/characters feeling different is having different PCs really good at different action. The range of actions already created a dynamic where someone would be good at say, 2-4 actions. And if that person only used those actions…that works! It would shape their role in the narrative.
After number crunching and more testing, I landed on the tried-and-true 2d6, with results breaking down on the typical Powered by the Apocalypse spectrum: 6 or less meant a failure, 7-9 meant a mixed success, and 10+ meant a full success. This structure allows for a majority of mixed success results, but also lets characters shine with specific actions.
Knowing that many players who tried Tides would be coming from a FitD background, I wanted to reward fictional positioning in some way. So I took inspiration from John Harper’s Breakers game, and rolled fictional effects into positive and negative modifiers. If you watch the Actual Play session of Tides, you will see a group of FitD pros milk this system for all it’s worth. And I’m happy with that. Players who don’t care as much can ignore the situational modifiers, and players who want every mechanical advantage can use it.
How Play Feels
Overall, I’m happy with the way Karma in the Dark and Tides of Gold feel differently when you play them. Taking actions in the oppressed world of Karma requires more thought and attention to power dynamics. Actions in Tides tend to playout faster, which allows for the narration to stand out more. In Tides you can basically say “what would look cool—let me just do that”, while in Karma that approach will quickly lead to stress and being blocked by systemic power imbalances.
While I’ve always thought about the ways mechanics contribute to the feel of a game, the experience of working on Karma and Tides has taught me to use it as a specific filter when I edit my games. While Crossing Worlds is generally a revision of Karma, its mechanics are already shaping up pretty differently from it. Most of that is because I am looking at every mechanical choice in turn and asking: “How does this mechanic reinforce the feel of the game?” If it doesn’t, it’s getting cut or revised. It can mean cutting out a lot of mechanics that are “cool but not necessary for this specific game.” Which can feel a little sad in the moment as a designer, but also means I have a growing list of mechanics to explore in future games, with different feels to them.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.