Author’s Comments on Breakdown: “Action”
Given our stressful year so far, I’d like to call out the game’s emotional range. Breakdown is about Pros on the edge, but it’s up to you and your group’s style whether your Pro stays grounded, peers into the abyss, or jumps in with both feet. I’ve seen play groups vary dramatically in how their Pros deal with stress, self-control, and intimacy. From a low-key slow burn to explosive melodrama, there’s no wrong way.
Some individuals and whole groups play Pros who avoid stressing out. This style puts emphasis on scenes where the Pros reflect, share, and bond (with other characters if not each other). The job or mission is slogged through professionally and tends to be less emphasized. These sorts of games function especially well using “The Breaking Point” setting, with the Pros all in the same profession and emphasis on the Pros’ relationships and day-to-day encounters.
In games where Pros avoid the edge and seek balance, a great way to evolve a character is to more often use a Pro’s Vulnerable Emotion Pool. Launching a Conflict where the Pro acts out while vulnerable means that the Pro is more likely to not get what they ostensibly want and to have that lesser-used emotion highlighted – maybe changing how the Pro thinks and/or changing how others look at the Pro. There’s a great example of this in the book, taken from real life play. Some other ways this can play out:
- A compassionate lie about going on a date leads to a revelation of sexual orientation.
- Angry protestations at going to rehab lead to the family finding out what the Pro really thinks.
- Flailing about while trying to achieve success leads to reflection and a new endeavor.
Another great way to use Breakdown’s mechanics to promote tenderly dramatic moments is to focus on self-care or care for others to avoid stress. And another way is to spend Openings to lower stress while increasing intimacy and interdependence. I saw this work well with the “Life in the Shadows” setting with a more reflective and openly caring group of Pros.
Games where Pros deal with stress by caring and reaching out are more like the TV show Monk, the comic book Love and Rockets, the TV show 9-1-1, or many dramedies focused on a workplace or family.
Other gamers like to play on the edge, pushing their Pros straight into the danger zone and keeping them there, using Openings to blackmail and otherwise provocatively cajole. Scenes regularly highlight Pros lashing out or melting down. The game is straightforward to use this way – employ conflict as much as possible. Push your Pros relentlessly in pursuit of their goals, don’t stop for relief until there’s no choice.
A great way to push hard is to use Openings ruthlessly. Let them get traded constantly around the group with the Pros constantly causing tension and trouble for each other. Along these lines, Openings can be used for a game of cloak and dagger round-robin betrayals. As you might imagine, I have seen Openings played most often for compromising and blackmailing in “Life in the Shadows.” But there’s examples of this in the book for “The Breaking Point,” too.
The TV miniseries and comic book Happy, the book Fahrenheit 451, the TV show House, and the TV show Bojack Horseman are all great demonstrations of what playing a game of Breakdown at full throttle can look like.
Of course, most groups play somewhere between the extremes. More balanced play leads to something more like the TV show E/R or the movie Blade Runner.
I’ve never seen anyone push their Pro recklessly to becoming a basket case or monster. Nor should you, for we should be earnestly playing Pros who are trying to do good, no matter how troubled: heroes, big and small, begrudging and eager, fearful and bold. Maybe their story ends in tragedy, but that’s a trip to be explored thoughtfully. Or if not, at least be sure your whole group really wants to play a wild, nihilistic ride (and if so, I suggest also playing Kill Puppies for Satan; if you do play Breakdown this way, let me know how it goes).
With the chapter below, you have all the “how to play” material. The next couple chapters provide setting and related narrative input, while the final chapter includes tools to help during play (character sheets, outlines, etc.) and design notes. Stay tuned and I’ll discuss more each setting, playtesting, and thoughts on game purpose in design.
If not already done before or during character creation, especially if inexperienced in the game, consult the Game Starters section in each setting chapter to consider additional story elements or to refine existing ones.
Sometimes the play group already has plenty of interesting situations and ideas in play. Ignore the setting Game Starters if you’re already comfortable.
Very often players will further refine or alter their Pros in reaction to the way the game starts; that’s not only allowed, it’s encouraged.
If anyone is uninterested in an idea, don’t use it, and absolutely don’t try to convince someone they are supposed to enjoy it. All players are asked to speak up, and all players must respect the others’ input.
The first ideas for storylines should already be developing, given what we know about the Pros and their backstories. Openings should already provide points of tension and drive for deeper exploration. But great stories are also based on what is going on out in the world that might be unexpected by and initially orthogonal to the Pros.
It’s a good idea to create a page of your own Game Starters, along the lines of those mentioned just above, specific to your game. Jot down the various story starting elements as discussed in character creation and upon reviewing the setting. This will provide focus and ongoing reference. This is your Story Guide.
Also use the Story Guide to reflect “NO GOs.” As mentioned in Adult Themes, any topics that you do not wish addressed should be written here. Write them on the back side of the Story Guide, or similarly to the side, so that they aren’t disturbing reminders, but so that you can later check these, particularly in case of new players.
Darkness now has a unique and absorbing role to play: they must generate challenges for the Pros, with some ideas of plots for characters and forces that oppose the Pros as well as encouraging connections among the Pros. As discussed, the Pros’ backgrounds, the Openings, and the Story Guides are employed; they should be initially the sole inspirations as we know these are what everyone at the table is interested in.
But it isn’t so simple as jumping into action right away. The Pros will have many Openings to explore, too many for a first game session, let alone in the first few actions. Also, at least Darkness’ player must understand how Scenes, Conflicts, and Outcomes function to know what sort of initial Scenes to frame, how to engage challenges to the players, and how to help players frame Scenes.
Darkness prepares by reviewing the known major initial challenges and questions facing the Pros, especially where these do or may overlap among them. Focus on opportunities to bring the Pros together early on. Darkness should especially review the following:
During the design of characters, certain situations may be obviously of special interest to the group. Do any require immediate attention by the Pros? Are any obviously tempting?
Each Pro’s Problem is what each player wants to explore. Some early Scenes should focus on the Problem, especially as it looms or explodes into view. Consider the kind of Problem the Pro has and whether it is intended to manifest immediately or after a slow burn.
Each Pro’s Drive and Caring indicate buttons that the players want pushed. The Drive reveals specific kinds of situations to throw at the Pro ongoing. The Caring is especially useful for exposition and roleplaying opportunities. Take care not to recklessly endanger loved ones or otherwise play fast and loose with elements most dear to the Pro. It’s often best to incrementally escalate situations related to the Caring and watch where the Pro takes them.
Openings with an obviously pressing issue can be good for early Scenes. But take care to let the Pros drive these. Focus on dangling opportunities and not pushing to resolution.
Each setting’s Game Starters section has ideas to bring Pros together early on. For example, if you have a group of Emergency Room Pros, the epidemic starter, #8 in the section, will provide a situation that both forces them to work at the same time and tears them from personal obligations. Such openings can be a great way to promote character interaction, witness the Pros under stress, and enable the players to drive narrative.
Consider where Pros’ issues and interests intersect. Do some (or all) Pros have the same social circle? What are the shared plotlines and situations? Do they have acquaintances in common? What occupational circumstances draw some (or all) together?
Darkness should especially consider the setting and Game Starters, of course with their own ideas, for surprises and plot twists. Don’t get wedded to any ideas, keep them in mind depending on where the players are going. Surprises and twists must not betray character concepts (without open discussion at least as to the nature of change being considered) and should never take away from what the players want to see in their characters’ development. They are best employed around opponents’ motivations and the machinations of opposing forces.
Finally, Darkness must not forget: ask the players if they have some first Scenes in mind. Those will almost always be the best: go with them, help the players frame them.
Very often (especially new) players will want Darkness to frame the first Scenes and get the action going. The following examples all follow from real life games, involving Pros you’ve seen above…
ER settings beg for an all-hands-on-deck kick-off. An epidemic, industrial accident, mass violence, or other chaos involving dozens or hundreds of the public is a great way to bring everyone together. With the ER Pros you’ve seen, we started with slice-of-life vignettes hinting at possible subplots, with each vignette interrupted by the call to work.
Luciana’s first Scene is her at admissions, exhausted, getting a call from her daughter.
Pearl’s at home when we first see her, with her boyfriend – and his reaction when she’s called into work.
Dr. Winslow was by his mother’s side but we decided he should be in the office.
Desmond is at a sports bar, enjoying wings and brew.
We then have a sudden wave of illnesses swamping the ER. All are called in. Shortly we see Desmond and Dr. Winslow encounter the patient who reveals this is no ordinary flu.
In the Life in the Shadows game with Clint, Alex, and Chris:
Chris’ opening Scene has his father appearing at his private detective agency; but (only known to Darkness) the father is working for the government and feeling out Chris, seeing if he will tip off his android status.
Alex has attracted the government’s attention. A “Harassment Agent” will reach out to see if she can be frightened into inaction. He will try to feel out what she knows and whether she can be intimidated, while his failure might be her opportunity to find out what the government knows.
Clint will get a visit from the rogue AI Carthage (see AI Super Computer – “Carthage”), as it has decided Clint has overlapping interests and could be a useful asset against the state.
Darkness has designed overlaps to draw the Pros together. Carthage has calculated that the government’s program of causing disappearances is a bad idea, whereas android development is intimately linked to the Disappeared (including Alex’ brother).
There are four phases through which we drive our storytelling and roleplaying:
Free Narration: loosely talking about what’s happening with the characters; establishing what is interesting; focusing on where we want to dive into a Scene
Scenes: roleplaying our characters in a specific situation
Seizing Narrative: using an Opening to get one’s way; this can be used to frame a Scene and then play through how one wins a Conflict, to initiate a Conflict during a Scene, or to force a win during a Conflict already underway
Conflicts: focusing on a conflict, determining stakes, determining how it unfolds
Outcomes: determining and playing out the initial repercussions of a Conflict
Not all Scenes have Conflicts. But all Conflicts have Outcomes. Seizing Narrative requires initiating a Scene, if one is not already in play, and then a Conflict, if one is not already underway. All is described below.
Much of the time, you will be in Free Narration mode: you are talking about the story, what might be happening, what characters are doing that we might not see on screen (or only see in montages) and so forth. Until there is question over whether or how an action is successful or just how a scene between characters goes in detail, we remain in Free Narration.
Free Narration is simply telling the story and acting the roles of the characters without structure. You are freely making up what is happening. You can tell as much or as little of the story this way as you like, right up until someone says “wait, I don’t think it would necessarily go that way” or “hey, let’s play that scene out in detail.”
When we say, “it wouldn’t necessarily go that way,” it is a call to either establish a Scene, go directly into a Conflict, or to closely follow the rules for the Outcome of a Conflict. See Scenes, Conflicts, or Outcomes accordingly.
But most of the time, you will suspend Free Narration to explore how a scene between characters goes. This may or may not lead to a Conflict.
Even during a Scene, Conflict, or Outcome, you may turn back to Free Narration. That is how you might share an idea for later or discuss what might be going on “off camera.” But try to limit such discussion. The purpose of the structure and rules for a Scene, Conflict, and Outcome is to focus on those key points in the story and evolution of the characters. Stay in the moment and don’t stray beyond what is necessary to making the Scene rich and rewarding. As always, consider any stories you like: for example, in most great conflict scenes, if there is any narration breaking the action, it is foreboding, complicating, or revealing.
Note that any narration, whether free or as constructed from the mechanics of Scenes, Conflicts, or Outcomes, must respect all prior storytelling. You are never allowed to use narration to ignore the story we know. You cannot narrate “the last scene was a dream!” That said, if the whole group realizes some mistake was made and the story should be changed, then definitely do so; but players may never unilaterally rewrite what the group has established as the story to date.
Never diminish the protagonist nature of someone else’s Pro or otherwise rewrite their character. Presenting challenges and ideas is fine. Conflicts between Pros is expected; Pros may even attempt to smear or hurt one another. But it is unacceptable to in any way try to rewrite another Pro’s heroism, intentions, issues, etc. If you have an idea for another player’s character, discuss it and leave it to them to drive those elements.
Free Narration can be used by any player to add details to the setting, so long as the details mentioned do not disrespect prior established details and storylines. For example, any player might add “and in comes the Deputy Mayor, Gladys Wallowstone,” with more details, even though no such character has ever been mentioned. Or, in Life in the Shadows, a player might say “on Tuesdays here in Wonder Park, patriotic residents gather to do a pro-government demonstration at the end of the work day.” However, such addition of details cannot be used to change the nature of the setting, Scenes, Conflicts, or Outcomes. For example, it is not acceptable to suddenly introduce “an alien craft lands in the middle of the city” (unless the story is already so developing) because that changes the very nature of the setting (and game).
W. playing Darkness: “So, unless anyone has other ideas, let’s start with all the Pros out of the ER, on their personal time. It’s Saturday midday. What are the Pros doing?”
P. playing Desmond: “I’m at a sports bar hanging out with a work buddy and others we know from the bar. Watching the game and having wings.”
J. playing Luciana: “Actually I’m not off work, I’m pulling a double shift, so I’m at the reception desk as usual.”
D. playing Pearl: “Pearl’s at home with her boyfriend, but she’s about to go in, getting ready to go to work.”
J. playing Dr. Winslow: “Finished up a visit with mom where she’s being treated, I’m reading up on current medical research and also just about to go into work.”
W/Darkness: “Okay. Luciana, you notice that there’s a surge of incoming patients, seems a lot more people are coming down with the flu. Desmond, you get a text that you need to come in and cover. Oh, have you had anything to drink? Do you say anything, given one is supposed to be alcohol-free for work?”
P/Desmond: “Oh, yeah, I’ve had a couple, but it’s no big deal, I’m fine. I don’t say anything and come in.” [W/Darkness takes a note this could lead to an issue later]
W/Darkness: “Let’s do a Scene with each of you…”
From here we dive into a short Scene for each character, to kick off this game and do some exposition. We’ll pick up these short Scenes (in summary) in the next section.
It’s just after a chase Scene (a Conflict) and the resulting fallout (Outcome). The players discuss how one Pro goes off to research what happened, another Pro just holes up and tries to de-stress, while the third starts calling people to find out whatever they can about who is after them and/or why. Darkness talks about how the news covers the event and brands the Pros as “terrorists.” The results of the research and asking contacts will be played out as Scenes/Conflicts, and there will be a Scene to describe what’s going on with the de-stressing Pro.
And this example:
Player: “Yeah, so after I get the results of the forensics, I contact everyone and I think we see a montage of us hitting the streets and talking to people, following up on the evidence, until, as per the Conflict results, we get to the ‘big boss.’”
Another player; “I’d like to say we find him at some strip club he owns.”
Darkness’ player: “Sure, that sounds fine. You get there….”
Another player: “On the way, before we get there, I think we stop and get some lunch. My Pro gives a pep talk, we see in the montage.”
Darkness’ player: “Cool! Do you all do anything else before we get to what I presume is a Scene where you meet the ‘big boss’ at the strip club?”
Player: “I think we prepare our questions and we all get straight that we’re only talking to this person to find out who they are and let them know we have a common enemy. Right?” The player looks at the other Pros’ players. They all nod. Free Narration ends and the group dives into the “meeting the big boss” Scene.
A Scene is a plot-important or expository moment for a character or, more often, among characters, narrating in detail, usually by first person exposition and often stating important character dialogue more or less line by line. Just as in any storytelling, a Scene must have a location, acting parties, and a context.
Any player may frame a Scene at any time provided it is appropriate to the story. Normally this will follow from Free Narration (or as described earlier in Generating the First Action). It is imperative to ensure all players get to frame Scenes; players must strive to be sure everyone at the table has ample opportunity and open invitation to do so.
To frame a Scene, answer the following questions:
Where is the Scene taking place?
Who is in the Scene?
Why is the Scene taking place – what caused this Scene to start, at what point is the Scene taking place (what just happened before); what do the characters want to get out of this?
Resist the temptation to go directly into a Conflict, even if that is the intention! State if the intention is to have a Conflict, even say “this Scene is a Conflict…” BUT do NOT actually start the Conflict until you have framed the Scene AND until every Pro present has indicated what they intend to do. For example, if you want to have a Scene where the Pros are ambushed, you do NOT start with the conflict itself, but instead by framing the ambush Scene. Indicate the location, who is there, and how the ambush is being foreshadowed, signaled, or set up for a surprise to happen. Then leave it to the Pros to decide how that Conflict takes shape. Be sure all players have a chance to indicate at least an intention in the Scene. For example:
Darkness: It’s nighttime, as we said. You mentioned you’re investigating the area. How are you set up, what are you doing, where’s each Pro?
Chris: I’m walking around the alleyways, examining closely for anything unusual.
Alex: I’m going to go up to a rooftop via a fire escape and get a view from above.
Clint: I’m on a burner phone, I’m researching satellite pics from the time of the disappearing.
Darkness: Just as Alex is about to climb up a fire escape, she sees someone above – with a gun pointed down at her. You’re all spread out, Alex dangling from the fire escape, Clint in the shadows on his phone, and Clint by a trash bin in an alley, as you hear from the dark figure above her, “You’re surrounded, put your hands up!” Nobody identifies themselves as authorities, you can’t yet tell who this is. You hear heavy-duty armaments being locked and loaded all around you. What do you do?
Note that Darkness knows these ambushers won’t negotiate and aren’t interested in talking. Maybe the Pros will come out swinging, will carefully study the ambushers first, or will try to negotiate – it’s up to them.
Allow room for reasonable corrections, don’t force anything unrealistic…
In the example just above, Alex’ player says, “Hang on, I’m not ‘dangling,’ I’m half-fastened, I would have been properly securing myself.”
Everyone nods in agreement. The Scene is thus reset a bit.
Scenes are all about roleplaying and storytelling. They should accomplish one or both of the following:
Advancing the plot – introducing plot twists, revealing information, leading to the next step, keeping everyone at the table engaged in the plot
Exposition – showing us how the Pros feel, learning more about the Pros, revealing their depth, making everyone at the table care about the characters
Scenes are not about vanity. Maybe you have a really cool monologue in mind and what’s in your Pro’s head is super interesting. But the same can be true for everyone else. Always consider when you are speaking to your characters’ thoughts and behaviors: does this keep everyone else engaged in the plot or does this make everyone at the table care about the character? If not or if you’ve already accomplished either of those, shut up and let someone else have a turn in driving the Scene.
Do what comes naturally in playing out the Scene while also respecting this is a story for all to share.
Put yourself in your Pro’s head and ponder what they would think and do.
Always consider the other players as people (respecting their time, values, etc.). (It’s not all about you and your awesome Pro, however excited you may be to tell their story.)
Always consider what makes for a better story.
Always consider what best integrates with and supports the other players’ ideas.
Think about the Scene in different visual mediums…
What if it were in a comic book? What would the panel focus on? What would the speech bubbles be like? What would the artwork look like, what kind of feel would it have?
What if it were in a movie? What’s the camera angles, what would the viewer see? What music is playing?
What if it were in a console game? What would we see through the character’s eyes? How would the screen pan? What objects would stand out, demanding our focus?
Think about your own life and experiences. What can you apply based on what’s in common with any of the characters?
Following up on our Free Narration from the ER game, let’s see a few Scenes that follow (in actual play players narrated more, these descriptions are abbreviated) …
Desmond in the bar/to the emergency room:
Who is here? Darkness’ player asks Desmond’s if co-workers are present. He replies he imagines a buddy from the staff there with Desmond and otherwise it’s barfly acquaintances.
Darkness describes the football game being watched as more than halfway through, the bar as lively, the local team as on the losing end.
Desmond’s narrates “I’m drinking a beer, shouting at the game.” Players chip in with some bar talk and jokes, Desmond quickly showing off as the life of the party.
Desmond’s player, speaking in first person as Desmond (common in these games) says, “My phone goes off. ‘Oh, shit,’ and as I read I say, ‘Hey guys, I gotta go, ER is calling.”
Darkness throws in how Des’ friend gets the same notice, then mentions, “Technically you’re not supposed to be drinking.”
Desmond’s player says “Yeah, I only had one before this. I down this one fast and pat my friend’s shoulder and say, ‘let’s go.’ As I approach the ER, I am sure to take a few breath mints. I put on my face mask with the smiley face illustrated on it.”
The simple expository Scene ends. We saw a little of how Desmond is, and we note that while he’s had a couple beers, that’s all, and he’s careful about not letting it be known – but this could be a complication later, especially if some ensuing Conflict presents a Darkness Outcome, as that could mean the small but real infraction being discovered somehow.
Luciana at the reception desk:
Luciana’s player describes her at the reception desk, multitasking and devoted. Darkness offers up that Luciana’s daughter calls.
Luciana’s player says “I look at the phone, at the caller ID. I click the ‘ignore’ button and keep focused on work.”
It’s flu season, as Darkness describes, and the emergency room is packed. Darkness says, “A mother comes up to the desk with her daughter. She says, ‘I have to see someone right away, we can’t keep waiting out here in the room. My daughter has the flu and she’s HIV positive, I don’t want her exposed to other diseases.’”
Luciana knows from the admitting information already given that the daughter is safe, her HIV is entirely suppressed, and her immune system is normal (this was described by Darkness). But the mother isn’t about to take a simple ‘no’ or an answer. It becomes apparent as the mother talks and as Luciana tries to respect the queuing process, this will be a Conflict. We’ll describe that in the section Some Example Conflicts).
Pearl at home:
Dr. Pearl Rar is at home. Her player describes sitting with her partner/fiancé, John, when she receives the phone call telling her to come in.
Darkness, remembering the partner’s issues from character creation speaks up as John, “They sure abuse you there, don’t they? Always you, they never can do anything without you. But you rush off, I guess you love the hospital more than you love me.”
Pearl (as her player narrates) says, “John, please, I love you, you know I just have to go in, I’m still in my first year of residency. It’ll get better.”
John: “Yeah, whatever. I guess I just love you more than you love me. Just go ahead, do what’s important to you.”
Pearl’s player describes her tearing up in frustration. “It’s not like that, I love you, I just can’t talk about this now, I have to go. I love you, we’ll talk as soon as I get home.”
John grumbles as she leaves. Then, just as Pearl is getting in her van, John rushes out.
“Honey, here’s the sandwiches I made for you, it’s your favorite just like you like it, ham and cheese with Dijon and pickles, I made some up for your shift later, already ready. Go get ‘em, I love you!” John gives her a big kiss.
Pearl says, “Uh, oh, thank you so much, I love you, too,” and shows her uncertainty at this emotional whiplash. She drives off, puzzled and concerned at these mood swings, and wondering what she might be doing wrong to cause this. We get a gripping picture of Pearl in this unpredictable abusive whirlwind.
Dr. Winslow introduction, more of the group in action:
Dr. Winslow’s character describes going through his routine work and noting the increase in emergency visits. He is just walking into the emergency admitting area when someone collapse.
Desmond is nearby and springs into action. Dr. Winslow rushes over. We’re immediately going to a Conflict, see how this plays out in the Some Example Conflicts section.
Later in the game, we establish that Dr. Winslow has identified a rare virus, the Ebola-like (fictional) “Bemola,” is present in the patient who collapsed earlier. Worse, this strain seems more easily acquired by contact with mucous and other externalized bodily fluids. Darkness describes that Chief of Medicine Dr. Gupta convenes a hasty ad-hoc discussion about next steps. Dr. Winslow and Dr. Rar are present, as well as a couple other doctors and a small group of interns.
Darkness quotes Dr. Gupta praising Dr. Winslow’s great catch. He places Dr. Winslow as assistant to Dr. Harrison in overseeing the investigation and treatment of the cases.
Dr. Winslow discusses how there are a couple more cases that are likely to be verified. Upon a fourth case, a contagious disease is considered in early epidemic stages, and the hospital will be required to go into “Code Black,’ as the Winslow player puts it, locked down in isolation and only admitting known cases of the epidemic while diverting all other patients to other hospitals; this also forces allocation of state and federal resources for the hospital – as well as unwanted oversight and possible interference. The players describe ensuing discussion of how the hospital should proceed in the meantime. Dr. Winslow at first feels that it is such a strong and imminent threat that they should immediately proceed to Code Black.
Dr. Gupta reminds Winslow and staff that any Code Black heightens fear and that panic will ensue, no matter how well managed. He elaborates “There’s already a rumor about this, I don’t know it got going but I hear staff is already gossiping. We can’t afford to fuel that, and we can’t afford any mistakes. We need to be cautious, maybe this is just a couple isolated cases we caught in time. It is important we project an image of reliability and safety. Let’s not cause more problems.”
Dr. Rar/Pearl speaks up, “Dr. Gupta, as you said, Dr. Winthrop has done great work here and he’s almost certainly right. We shouldn’t risk delaying, and better to sound an alarm and back off than to risk more contagion.”
Dr. Gupta can barely contain his arrogance and anger at being challenged. “DOC-TOR Rar, while your experience of all of one year surely indicates you must know everything, may I remind you I run this hospital and have a great deal more experience than even you, believe it or not. Let us move on…”
But Dr. Rar won’t have it. She challenges Dr. Gupta; we’ll see this Conflict play out later.
Above is also a great example of how Scenes build from one another. In this game, an earlier Scene had Desmond taking the culture from the collapsed patient to be tested. Darkness described the lab technician taking it as clearly not willing to rush it and relegating it to the end of the queue for cultures. But Desmond, in a brilliant characterization by the player, blurted out that this is probably Bemola and “this could be a pandemic.” Darkness realized there’s no Conflict for this, the lab tech can’t ignore that kind of drama and urgency, so simply agreed to test it immediately – and began gossiping, thus building panic even before anything official was said.
This is how players bring their own drama! Later, this game sees Dr. Gupta trying to find out how the panic started while simultaneously enlisting Desmond (whose name he can never remember, just knowing him as “that weird funny nurse”) and Luciana to lift spirits of the increasingly panicked staff.
Openings are very powerful. Their most important use is to “Seize Narration,” a move in which the player’s Pro (or if the player is Darkness then their characters/force) immediately wins a Conflict.
Using an Opening to Seize Narration also enables future drama and complications: upon use, it is given to the player it is used against, meaning that player may later Seize Narration.
How one narrates winning is described in the Who Wins? How Does it Go Down? section, but first the concept of Seize Narration should be understood.
One Seizes Narration for one’s Pro (or in Darkness’ case one’s character(s)/force) to get their way and/or force a particular outcome. It occurs at an important point in the story or creates an important point in the story. Seize Narrative normally ensures a Pro’s or antagonist’s success at a crucial moment. It can be used to introduce a complication in the story.
One might decide to Seize Narration during Free Narration, a Scene, or a Conflict. Announce the intention to do so whenever desired and appropriate. If not in a Scene, frame one, and then play out a Conflict within that Scene. If you are in a Scene but not in a Conflict yet, as soon as you say you are Seizing Narration, a Conflict is underway – you’re creating one. The very nature of Seizing Narration creates a charged situation that may result in unintended consequences.
A Conflict is engaged when any Pro wants to accomplish something and that Pro, another Pro, and/or Darkness wants to see potential unforeseen consequence or when a Seize Narration move is made outside of Conflict.
Not all conflicts are Conflicts, meaning that not every time a character is engaged in facing opposition do we have to play this out mechanically as a Conflict in our game. The definition of a “Conflict” is that it matters to us in the storytelling/roleplaying context that we detail out the struggle using game mechanics in order to generate the excitement of the unknown and/or because we want to see how competition for narration leads to interesting story and/or character developments. Not all conflicts are important this way; for example, we might have an expository Scene where a Pro busts a vagrant or a spy eludes detection by some local security guards simply to show how cool the Pro is; in that case, there is no Conflict, simply the roleplaying as described in Scenes, above.
Darkness rarely forces a specific Conflict; instead, typically, Darkness presents challenges and threats, and the Pros’ players decide when and how to engage and whether it will be an actual Conflict in game terms. An example is illustrated above in discussing the ambush in the Scenes section. The Pros could choose to simply go along and be ambushed and suffer any consequences, at least until those consequences seem too harsh; for example, the Pros could say “we surrender,” and there is no Conflict, at least not yet, as the ambushers presumably take the Pros away. However, if Darkness is presenting a murderous-only ambush, then Darkness would say, “shots ring out, they are starting to shoot to kill, do something or be shot!” Even then, the Pros could choose to be shot and not initiate a Conflict!
Sometimes Darkness may want a specific Conflict or see that it is naturally engaged. In either case, Darkness should proceed with caution and should ensure the Pros retain reasonable choice in response. In the ambush example above, Darkness might rush to saying “there’s an ambush, I think it’s a Conflict,” but should then stop to say something such as “or unless you want to be caught?” Remember, sometimes being caught is just what a Pro prefers.
When Darkness wants to force a Conflict to a specific end there is only one way: Seize Narration. Darkness must have an Opening and play it. See more below on engaging Seize Narration.
In any case, as soon as it is clear that the consequences are not going to be left to Free Narration/a Scene and roleplaying but instead will involve players actively competing over stakes, we have a Conflict. A Conflict has a few steps:
Determine who is taking the initiative. That player states the Stakes and Approach first during each of the two steps below and will win any tie.
Determine the Stakes – what does each Pro and/or Darkness get by winning the Conflict?
Each participant states their Approach and chooses a corresponding Pool (either Focus, Compassion, or Fury for a Pro; Darkness always and only rolls Darkness dice)
Each participant rolls dice accordingly; who wins and a Tone are determined
Winner narrates the Conflict resolution and all players follow up accordingly in an Outcome phase
Whoever is initiating the Conflict is normally obvious. If the Pros are being surprised, then Darkness/the opposition has initiative. If the Pros are staking out someone and then initiate a Conflict, they have initiative. Most often, if the Pros are acting in the line of duty and the Conflict is not extraordinary, they have the initiative.
If it is not obvious or under debate, it is up to Darkness to decide who has initiative, but Darkness should always follow the ongoing standards of the group and ensure they are not creating unhappiness with the story and behavior.
Sometimes the Stakes will be clear: “the bad guys want to get away” versus “the good guys want to capture the bad guys.”
But Stakes are often not so simple. Let’s say we are in an emotional Scene where a Pro wants to convince his lover he cares about her, but also wants to go out and “do his job.” The lover wants the Pro to show his love, too, but also wants the Pro to “be safe.“ How the Pro shows his love is a component of the Conflict, as is showing how he will “stay safe.” It is important that these Stakes remain clear. It would be easy – as in real life – for the Pro to focus on convincing the lover that he “will be safe,” while getting to go out. But is that truly the struggle? Is the struggle for the loved one to be “convinced” or is it truly for the control of that Pro’s time in the next few hours?
In this game, the answer is the control over the next few hours. You should always make Stakes something tangible, something that can be easily demonstrated and has real impact. Making an outcome an emotional state (“convinced” the Pro is being safe) is less satisfying in impact, not easily proven, and anyway not typically achieved in some single conflict between people. Instead, focus on the behavior or action that will come out of the Conflict. By making this Conflict about “does the Pro stay home or go out,” we get to leave the heavy emotional questions lingering and leave room for character and plot development; if the Pro goes out but gets hurt, we leave the lover open to feel guilty for accepting a sense of safety or to feel betrayed for being deceived, whichever is more dramatically satisfying and appropriate later.
Sometimes a Conflict can be as simple as trying to calm someone down (“You come across the victim’s brother; he is inconsolable, ranting and raving, saying he will get revenge or die trying”); but even then, focus on the behavior, not the inner feelings. Make the Stakes such as getting a character to sleep on it versus acting on impulse.
Aim for Stakes that escalate the situation and are dramatically proportionate to where the situation stands. Dramatic leaps to great Stakes should be clearly justified by the circumstances and the mounting drama of the story. As in the example above, the control over the next few hours is at Stake; should there be a later Conflict where the couple is vying for control, a sensible escalation might be committing to a new practice (“commit to stop going to the bar with your friends except once a week” versus “let me have a few uninterrupted hours every day off the clock with my colleagues”). The next escalation in Conflict might be such as “let’s go to a marriage counselor” versus “stop talking to me about counseling.” And finally, in the worst case, a struggle over breaking up, which could take any number of shapes depending how the prior Conflicts and behaviors shake out.
For details on raising Stakes across a long-running mystery, medical case, con job, or the like, see More on Problems Bigger than Single Conflicts (Moving Plots Forward) below.
Sometimes the Stakes are more about what can go wrong for the initiating Pro, not whether they get what they expected. Maybe a Pro launches an unwinnable Conflict, or one which they obviously will “win” but in either case may hold unexpected positive or negative consequences such that we want to play out the Conflict. In such cases, don’t fret over the Pro getting the objective; discuss what would be so positive or negative for the Pro.
For example, a Pro is sweating a thug who will confess, in the end. The Conflict isn’t about whether the Pro finds out the information, but (as possibilities)
Negative: the Pro develops a protective sympathy for the thug, swearing to protect them or a loved one of theirs
Negative: the Pro reveals something compromising
Negative: the Pro gets the truth but falls for some other trick
Positive: the Pro enlists the thug against former employers
Positive: the thug reveals they are more than what they seem
Positive: the Pro gets the trust of the thug for some action or period of time
Or maybe a Pro is trying to hack a computer system they can’t possibly understand, failure a certainty. The Conflict isn’t about the failure, instead…
Positive: the Pro attracts the attention of a sympathetic and powerful potential ally
Positive: the Pro learns some new information
Positive: the Pro is caught and immediately captured – so they are now on the inside
Negative: the Pro is digitally compromised and is unaware they can be tracked
Negative: the Pro is found out and will lose their job, or a loved one will be taken hostage, or such
Negative: the would-be hacked party finds valuable information about the Pro
Stakes must be realistic. A gang boss isn’t going to just surrender their criminal enterprise for no good reason. A rapist isn’t going to stop just because of a good talking-to. A Pro isn’t going to go against their ethical core unless they have some compelling reason (such as conflict among competing values or for the sake of a deeply loved one).
The Stakes must be acceptable to each party. As necessary, negotiate while considering what will make for interesting and/or entertaining consequences. But no player should accept Stakes antithetical to their Pro or seen as unfair in context.
Establishing Stakes when a Conflict is initiated by a Seize Narration move is no different, except that the party initiating is already going to win, so the Stakes are one-sided. Here’s a great example of Stakes negotiations in such a case:
Dr. Rar has long had evidence that Dr Winslow followed his gut rather than protocol in discharging a patient who has since passed away, as described earlier in Examples of Openings.
Later in the game, Dr. Winslow tells Dr. Rar she is pregnant and that she’ll need to stop working in a situation rife with contamination risk, due to hospital policy and safety for her unborn; moreover, Dr. Winslow must, per policy, report the finding for reassignment.
Dr. Rar is resistant. She’s afraid of her abusive partner finding out. She doesn’t want to be forced to spend more time at home. She wants to spend her time on the front line, helping people. Her player decides to spend the Opening against Dr. Winslow and Seize Narration. This immediately frames a Conflict which Dr. Rar/her player will win. The player pushes that the Stakes should be that Dr. Winslow hides the information.
But Dr. Winslow’s player points out that: first, it’s not realistic the report could simply be completely hidden as the tests have been run and recorded; and, second, Dr. Winslow, as seen in this game, is a straight arrow who doesn’t take protocol and safety lightly (except when he “knows better,” which this isn’t about).
The players negotiate that it’s realistic that, due to privacy reasons, the report/data isn’t going to automatically route to just anyone and that Dr. Winslow has ample time and reason to hold off without it hurting his career or betraying his ethics. Of course, he won’t be happy about it. The players agree that this is acceptable. They don’t define just how long he can or will hold out, other than “at least a day or a few days.”
Who knows what he’ll do later!? These are good Stakes; the players have created a complication leading to a more compelling story.
(Later, Dr. Winslow’s empathetic side wins out, and he decides in the next day to declare that all first-year interns, which includes Dr. Rar, need to be reassigned as the hospital needs support in another area while he and senior doctors deal with the contaminated patients. Dr. Rar is grateful for Dr. Winslow keeping her from being singled out, and the reassignment avoids the issue entirely as it renders moot the protocol demanding he reveal her secret to any staff. They bond, and we wonder where this relationship might go next.)
Which Pros are in the Conflict? Are they working together or competing? Which emotion or emotions are driving them?
Understanding which Pros are in the Conflict is straightforward. Players decide for any Pros present as to their engagement. Pros not in the Scene may join if the group sees it as reasonable that the Pro could make it in time. Narrate any late arrivals accordingly.
When Pros are on the same side in a Conflict against Darkness and/or another Pro, they either Compete or Help to win. A Helper is cooperating with the other Pro(s) to win the Conflict, while a Competing Pro is not. A Helper has no control over how the Pro they are Helping narrates the result, whereas anyone Competing, because they are working to win alone, gets normal narration rights if winning.
If the opposition is equal or superior, the Pros’ best chance to win, short of Seize Narration, is always for one Pro to lead the fight and others on their side to Help. But Pros can Compete as they wish; as in fiction and real life, the lack of cooperation will hurt the Pros’ collective chance but can mean that one individual Pro or a faction might win the Conflict their own way.
Classically, the “good cop/bad cop” routine, where two Pros are interrogating someone with one of the Pros being apparently friendly to the interrogated while the other is apparently hostile, could be either one Pro Helping the other or the two Pros Competing. The difference is in their motivation. If they are working together for the success of the interrogation, whoever is strongest in the situation takes the lead and the other Helps. If they are trying to one-up each other or prove who has the best Approach, then they are not Helping and instead are Competing.
Any Pro not Competing or Helping is simply not involved in the Conflict. Such Pros may NOT Seize, once the Conflict is engaged, and NEVER have ANY influence on the Conflict. Period. They may be present and observing, they may launch a follow-up Conflict, but they may not jump into this same Conflict.
Along with deciding whether to Help or Compete, each participating Pro decides which Emotion Pool to employ, i.e. which emotional context is driving their Pro. The Approach taken MUST be consistent with the given Pool. Some examples:
Nurse Johnny is hyper-focused as he triages the burn victims. “I don’t really care what they are saying that isn’t focused on their condition. I don’t care about burned dollies or the family home. They’re lucky to be alive, and I’ve got a job to do; anything else is a distraction.” Johnny’s player picks the Focus Pool.
Beat cop Yancey cares about people. “As she tells me about her asshole husband, I can’t help but wonder how she got herself into this terrible life. I linger over her history and offer her coffee. No, not to get prints, just because I know how hard this is on her.” Yancy’s player picks the Compassion Pool.
Freedom fighter Kelly can’t stand this ugly world, especially right now. “The poor, crying kid. As I pull him into the van to rush him to the hospital, I just want to kill who did this to him. It’s all I can think about. My hands are shaking.” Kelly’s player picks the Fury Pool.
Once the Emotion Pool is identified, throw all the die for that Pool, unless the Pro is Helping, in which case throw half the dice (rounded UP, so one die = one die, three dice = two dice, etc.).
If the Conflict was launched by Seize Narration, then no one else may Seize this Conflict.
As mentioned earlier, a player, if engaged, may Seize Narration at any point during a Conflict, up until the winner begins narration. Once that happens, no one else may Seize Narration for this Conflict.
Once the dice are rolled, anyone may speak up to Seize Narration. The winner should allow a moment for anyone to do so; similarly, if the winner is literally only beginning to talk, then it’s fine for someone to interrupt to Seize Narration. But one cannot wait to hear the substance of the winner’s narration to then Seize. As soon as Outcomes come into focus, the Conflict is over and cannot be Seized.
Of course, anyone may immediately use Seize Narration afterward to launch a new Conflict.
In the odd case multiple people seem to declare Seize Narration at once, use random chance to determine who gets to Seize.
Upon Seizure, the process continues as described following, except that the party Seizing Narration is the winner.
Darkness’ forces and characters do not have preassigned Emotion Pools. Instead, they have dice according to how challenging they are to the Pros. All these dice are “Darkness” dice, as opposed to the Pros’ Compassion, Fury, or Focus dice.
Darkness’ player must read the expanded details on how Darkness assigns dice in More on Determining Darkness Dice, but for now it’s enough for all players to be aware that:
1-2 dice is a mundane, typical life challenge (usually for Conflicts where a Pro is Vulnerable in facing a challenge, or where it’s interesting just how the Conflict goes)
3-4 dice is a significant challenge to a Pro
5+ dice is a serious threat against any Pro
10-14 dice represents a big challenge no one Pro can face alone
15-18 dice is the top range, representing the most serious threats reasonable to play out in a single Conflict
The first time a threat is encountered, Darkness typically gives a rough idea of what the toughness of opposition seems to be, based on what is apparent to the Pros (Pros may engage a Conflict to better assess a threat – but bear in mind the Stakes/risks, such as losing time or the threat gaining advantage).
The threat’s dice normally remain consistent when again encountered (maybe plus or minus depending on what happens, what the Pros and the opposition learn, how they are influenced by events). Unless Pros specifically can’t remember important facts, Darkness should remind players of the number of dice.
Who wins the Conflict and how the Conflict “goes down” (the Tone of the Conflict) are determined separately; they are distinct components that come together to form the Outcome.
Unless Seize Narration has occurred, in which case the player Seizing Narration wins, each Competing player counts how many dice they rolled, plus all those rolled by any Helpers, that have a 1, 2, or 3 on them. Whichever Competitor has the most such dice wins. In case of tie, whoever has the initiative wins. The winner will narrate how the Conflict plays out.
But before any narration, determine also the Tone. The Tone is determined by whichever die is HIGHEST, and the Tone equals the Pool of that die (meaning if the die is of the Fury Pool, then the Tone is Fury, if the die is of the Darkness Pool, then the Tone is Darkness, etc.).
If Compassion Tone, the Conflict’s Outcome highlights tenderness, understanding, hope, bittersweetness, good faith, love, concern, protection, or the like
If Fury Tone, the Conflict’s Outcome highlights anger, distrust, vengeance, hatred, violence, wreckage, meanness, division, or the like
If Focus Tone, the Conflict’s Outcome highlights precision, single-mindedness, myopia, fixation, obsession, compulsion, lack of emotion, sterility, or the like
If Darkness Tone, the Conflict’s Outcome highlights melancholy, regret, collateral damage, removal, ominous foreshadowing, rejection, damage, loss, or the like
If two or more Pools have the highest die, find the next highest die among only those Pools until the tie is resolved. For example:
Lou rolls 5 Compassion dice, getting a 6, 5, 3, 2, 1
Kendra rolls 3 Fury dice, getting a 6, 5, 3, 2
Bennie rolls 3 Darkness dice, getting a 6, 4, 3
The 3 highest dice are all 6s, each of the Compassion, Fury, and Darkness Pools; what’s the next highest dice? It’s a 5 for Compassion versus a 5 for Fury versus a 4 for Darkness.
That leaves it between Compassion and Fury; between those, the next highest dice for each of those are a 3 and a 3, respectively. Check the NEXT highest dice, which are, again, a 2 and a 2! So then check again the dice below those; because Lou rolled a “1” while Kendra did not roll a fifth die, Compassion is the Tone.
Anytime the Darkness Pool is tied, Darkness may drop out and let the Pro’s or Pros’ dice, only, determine the Tone. Darkness should do this whenever it feels right, they don’t see Darkness as a desirable Tone, or if there have been a lot of Darkness Tones lately. But the choice is entirely at Darkness’ discretion.
Note that all dice of a given Pool are considered together, no matter who rolled them. In the above example, if Lou and Kendra each rolled Fury dice, then Fury would be the Tone because there would be two 6s (one from Kendra and one from Lou) versus Darkness’ single 6.
In case there is an absolute tie across all dice for Tone (e.g., if in the above case Kendra had also rolled a 6, 5, 3, 2, and 1), then whoever wins chooses among the tied Tones.
The winner states how the narration turned out. They describe how their Pro (or otherwise Darkness) won the Stakes. The Tone must be respected. Who won the Conflict and how it played out is the first-stated Outcome (see more on this below) of a Conflict. However, Darkness may always dictate how the Darkness Tone plays out.
At Darkness’ option, they may leave the consequence of the Darkness Tone until later. This allows Darkness to bring in a mystery or surprise, such as the Pro(s) being successfully tracked afterward, or someone kidnapped while the Pros were distracted. There are examples below in Some Conflict Examples and More on Darkness Tone.
The winner narrates the immediate Outcome of a Conflict, bringing together how the Pro/their side won the stakes with the Tone as described above. A few short examples follow; note more examples are provided in the Some Example Conflicts just following this one…
Edwin and another Pro, Caelan, try to stop agents from kidnapping someone. They don’t Help (they don’t know each other yet), instead Competing to save the victim, and fail. The Tone is Focus. Darkness narrates that the agents do get away with the victim; Edwin’s player offers up, as an idea in support of Focus being the Tone, that he and Cealan, each obsessive in their way, get bogged down arguing with and challenging each other, letting the kidnapping van get away unobserved, a great way to interpret Focus as the Tone! Darkness, as the winning narrator, adopts the idea and the Outcome is so defined.
A team of Pros manages to stop a terrorist strike – but the Tone is Darkness. The strike is stopped, but, respecting Darkness as the Tone, the wrong party is accused of the attempted crime.
Our Pro Sarah is grabbed by agents; she’s a friendly, naive young woman. She tries to charm her way out of the kidnapping. She fails, but Compassion is the Tone. Darkness narrates that one of the agents takes a liking to her, wanting to protect her from the worst to come, and ends up killing the other agent, a rapist. The agent and Sarah develop a bond – even though she remains captive. See this Conflict in detail in Some Examples Conflicts.
Following narration, Pros adjust their Emotion Pools depending on the Tone:
Each Pro who employed the Tone increases that corresponding Pool by one die. For example, if your Pro used Fury and the Tone is Fury, add one to the Fury Pool. This represents the Pro becoming consumed. If the dice are at the Maximum as shown on the Protagonist Game Sheet for that Pool, ignore this and do not increase.
Each Pro who employed a different Emotion Pool than the one corresponding to the Tone chooses either to increase the Emotion Pool corresponding to the Tone by one die (i.e., they are sucked into the same feelings) or decrease the Pool they used (i.e., the Tone eats at them, decreasing the level of their contrasting Emotion Pool). If the Emotion Pool corresponding to the Tone is at Maximum, the player may either do nothing or decrease the Pool they used.
With a Conflict resolved, one cannot launch it over again. The parties are bound by the Stakes and the narrated Outcome. The situation is resolved. A next Conflict has to have new Stakes and relate to a new situation.
We have so far described the immediate Outcome of a Conflict. But there might be following Outcomes. Upon narration and the adjustment of any Emotion Pools, review each Pro’s Pools. Any Pool that is at a 6 or greater indicates a Pro in the process of breaking down, the Pro will Snap unless they can immediately reduce their stress.
A Pro may immediately reduce their stress, which includes reducing the related Emotion Pool by one die and if below 6 thereby avoiding a Snap, by performing one of the following:
Frame a Scene immediately following the Conflict in which the Pro tries to deal productively/positively with their emotions (if, for any reason, the Pro does anything else instead of this, no matter why, they lose the opportunity).
Give one of your own Openings to another Pro, exactly as described earlier in the Openings section. This also requires an immediate Scene. This Scene could be a quick one between the Pros. Just as described in Openings, the Pro giving the Opening is literally opening up and becoming vulnerable to the receiving Pro.
Spend an Opening: give an Opening to Darkness. This is the quickest and easiest way, but at the highest price. This represents the Pro ignoring the stress successfully – for now – or otherwise powering through. The price is that Darkness may use it against them later.
A touching example of a stress-relieving Scene follows the attempt by Edwin, our soc-blogger, to prevent the kidnapping of one of his clients (as seen near the beginning of this section). He’s tense and feeling guilty over his failure…
R. / Edwin’s player: “After calling 911, I grab an OverLifter ride to the client’s mother [this is a great example of inventing details along the way, there was no prior mention of the client’s family or the “OverLifter” ride-sharing service]. I walk up to the door of the modest apartment in the city, gently touching the doorbell.”
Darkness: “An elderly woman answers the door, cautiously, looking around a bit as she says ‘hello?’”
R: “Hello Mrs. Moore. We haven’t met…I work with your son, I’m a soc-blogger for him. I – I have some…information, we need to talk, may I please come in?”
Darkness: “[In a soft voice, denoting talking in character as the mother.] ‘Um….yes. Oh, yes, of course, please, come in.’ [Switching voice to ‘normal.’] She walks you in and is obviously nervous but trying to be polite. The house is small, she’s on her own, as you know, and it’s well-kept. You see pictures of family, including her just-disappeared son spread throughout the living room. [Switching voice back to the mother.] ‘May I get you anything to drink, coffee or tea?’”
R: “As we sit, I say ‘no, no thank you. Mrs. Moore, I’m sorry to come so late, and I’m sorry to have to tell you this…’ I describe what happened, slowly and methodically, sometimes hesitating, as I’m not sure how to say this.”
Darkness: “Her eyes go wide and she looks uncertain, fearful, and is trying to absorb it.”
R: “I put my hand on hers. I tell her how sorry I am. I’ve already prepared a black star [the symbol loved ones put in the window for those who have disappeared], and I hand it to her, slowly and sadly.”
Everyone is quiet for a moment. R. says, “I guess that ends the Scene.”
If the dice remain at this point at a “6” or more in a Pool, the Pro Snaps: narrate a Scene (not necessarily immediately, but not so long that the Pro has a chance to de-stress), in which the Pro experiences a clear setback or disadvantage, usually in a newly charged or escalated situation. Setbacks include such as promoting distrust by others, imperiling oneself or one’s allies, and causing emotional and/or physical harm to oneself or a loved one. Examples follow…
He shows Alex his phone, his finger hovering over the delete key of her brother’s contact info. “I told you to step back and just leave me be. Or else I’m going to delete your brother’s info. That’s right, I’ve been holding on to this the whole time.”
Alex literally steps back, stunned, just now discovering Clint has this information. She agrees, fearing the loss of the best lead to get back to her brother, and now is suspicious of Clint and his motivations.
Hot on the trail and fresh from antagonizing Lieutenant Murphy to quickly get the evidence out of the locker, Vasquez doesn’t even think about her home life. She forgets to pick up her kid from school, leaving her panicked mother/the child’s grandmother, to get a call from the child asking for a ride home.
They’ve bluffed the NSA black ops agents. At the last minute, the stressed-out Brad overplays his hand, declaring to Special Agent Gloria Harrison, “My lawyer’s going to sue the hell out of you! I know who you are!”
Brad’s player points out he wants Harrison antagonized and concerned enough to follow up later. Note that this follows a Conflict Brad won, and the NSA is leaving, Brad is free. But the Snap is setting up future trouble.
At “8,” the Pro Breaks. Two things happen. First, the emotional range and abilities of the Pro diminish; reduce either of the OTHER Pools by one (unless both Pools are at zero). Second, the Pro Snaps, as above, but make it bigger and more dramatic, to the point it removes the Pro (at least temporarily) from their normal role, examples include:
the cop throws down his badge and walks out
the spy goes rogue, burning all bridge
the firefighter lets or outright causes someone to die
the husband turned freedom fighter gives up and turns to addiction
the junkie doctor is committed to rehab
A Break means the Pro can no longer normally participate in Conflicts! They can be in Scenes and start Conflicts, but when a Conflict engages, they are useless, completely unable to make an effective move. They may act in the Conflict, but it must prove ineffective or even counterproductive. Don’t roll dice for a Broken Pro in a Conflict; just suffer the consequences. The Pro’s role is still narrated (whether catatonic, madly striking out, scheming all too transparently, whatever the case); but the Pro is so ineffective, so filled with rage, overcome with OCD, broken with melancholy, or otherwise debilitated that they cannot drive to an Outcome.
The Broken Pro can de-stress and lose a die in the Pool to reset themselves to 7 dice either by performing the normal actions to reduce a die or by suffering the consequences of a Conflict, whether they started it or not.
But the Broken Pro can also take this opportunity to Retire! See Retirement, below.
Following from the Scenes section…
As earlier described, a mother won’t wait for her daughter to be admitted. Luciana wants to calm the mother down and keep the situation managed. The Stakes are that simple. It’s an early opportunity to see just how Luciana deals with this and there can be interesting consequences here.
Luciana is concerned for the family and therefore using Compassion. The player describes her as patient and attentive going into the Conflict.
Darkness describes the mother as unrelenting and needing concrete action. Darkness determines the mother will have 2 Darkness dice.
Luciana’s player rolls her 4 Compassion dice for a 5, 4, 3, and 2. That’s two winning dice.
Darkness’ player rolls the mother’s 2 Darkness dice for a 6 and 5. That’s no winning dice but note that the 6 is the highest die among all those rolled, so the Tone is Darkness.
Luciana’s player explains that she gets a doctor’s attention and narrates how the doctor reassures the mother that the daughter will be okay to wait a little while, and how the mother calms down.
But remember, Darkness is the Tone. Luciana’s player doesn’t immediately have an idea here, and Darkness offers up that in Luciana’s concern for the mother and patient, she didn’t notice a nearby patient approaching the desk and needing attention. That patient then collapses. Luciana narrates she blames herself. Darkness uses this to introduce the new disease epidemic. Dr. Winslow and Desmond, below, kick off another Conflict…
Dr. Winslow and Desmond rescue a patient
As the patient mentioned above falls, Desmond is the nearest person. He leaps into action, the player narrates, attempting to rescue and help the patient. Dr. Winslow’s character is also nearby and approaches as well to help. Note this is all decided by group input and consent. Pearl’s player doesn’t feel she’d be right there yet, while Luciana’s player wants Luciana to be attentive otherwise in admitting, lest she repeat the “mistake” of not noticing someone else in peril.
The Stakes are discussed, and it is decided that either the Pros detect something important about the patient having an unusual disease or the disease goes undetected, possibly infecting one of the Pros, and becoming more dangerous.
Desmond sees the patient is already losing consciousness. He is in pure Focus mode, considering what to do to help the patient per his training. Not his strongest suit, but 2d6 is always good in day-to-day situations.
Dr. Winslow is typically “by the book” and is in Focus mode as well. For him that’s 4d6.
They work together; Dr. Winslow being the senior medical person as well as more powerful in dice takes the lead, Desmond Helping. Therefore, Desmond will add 1d6 (half of his 2d6) to Dr. Winthrop’s 4d6.
Darkness knows this patient is unusual, however, and determines it’s 6d6 of Darkness opposing Desmond and Dr. Winthrop.
The Pros are lucky: Dr. Winthrop has a 6, 3, 2, and 2. Desmond has a 3. Darkness has a 5, 4, 4, 3, 2, and 1. Dr. Winthrop has won, and the Tone is Focus (with the 6). Before Dr. Winthrop’s player narrates, Darkness points out the fallen character has Bemola and that Dr. Winthrop may pick up on that now (also note that this was no surprise to the players as there was already some discussion among them about the basic scenario).
Dr. Winthrop’s player narrates how his keen instincts and broad knowledge come together for him to jump to the conclusion this is no usual flu and suspecting something like Bemola. Desmond’s player offers up how he steadies the patient in time and prevents him from falling and hurting himself further. As Focus rules the day, there’s no call for either of the medical professionals to risk contagion. There’s no risk of Snapping here as Dr. Winthrop goes from 4d6 to 5d6 in Focus and Desmond from 2d6 to 3d6.
Desmond’s player comes up with the idea that Dr. Winthrop muses aloud it might be Bemola and Desmond overhears. Dr. Winthrop’s player, who owns the narration as the winner, is okay with that idea as it fits his Focus. Desmond is described afterward (see Scenes, page 34) as not worrying about rumors and relays the fear of Bemola to get the lab tech to prioritize testing. This is a great example of playing the Focus Tone.
Dr. Rar argues against Dr. Gupta’s cautious take. “Remember what happened to Dr. Baldwin in the media when he followed protocol, but it was still so-called too late?” The Conflict starts, the Stakes being whether Dr. Gupta’s order stands or Dr. Rar overcomes it.
Dr. Rar appeals to Dr. Winthrop to join in, but he will not! He is concerned he’s been following his gut too much and respects Dr. Gupta’s position. Dr. Rar is frustrated, wondering why now Dr Winthrop isn’t trusting his (usually-right) gut.
The argument is briefly described. Dr. Rar is very much in Compassion mode, worried about the community over any protocol handcuffing them. Dr. Gupta will not stand down, he will not be embarrassed by bowing to a mere first-year resident.
Dr. Rar has 4d6. But Dr. Gupta is a heavy, the hospital boss with great experience and arrogance to match; he will be 6d6.
She ends up with a 4, 4, 3, and 2. That’s not enough to win against Darkness’ 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.
But Dr. Rar’s player doesn’t want her to lose this one and likes the tradeoff of spending an Opening to Seize Narration and take down Dr. Gupta. She spends the Opening (it’s one of her own), giving it to Darkness. And then narrates how she emphasizes Dr. Baldwin’s fate – and invents the detail that he was the former Chief of Medicine. She adds that already too many of the staff know, that sooner than later this will leak to the media.
Dr. Gupta is concerned for his own career and is persuaded to back down; he declares, “I’ve decided with all the evidence on the table we’ll proactively declare Code Black. Dr. Winslow make it so.” He adds coldly, “Dr. Rar, thank you for your input.”
But the Opening she spent is important. And the Tone is Darkness! Thus Dr. Gupta takes her aside, as Darkness describes it, after the meeting, and quietly says to her, “You have mighty big balls for a first-year resident. Do not forget who runs this hospital. I would advise you to be more cautious in the future.”
He stridently turns and marches away – to begin plotting against her…
And more Conflict examples from a variety of games:
Sarah is an innocent young woman being kidnapped. “Black ops” agents are holding her in a white van en route to her interrogation. She wants out, the Stakes are that simple. She thinks of her father, who has already lost his wife/her mother to these disappearances; she can’t bear what this will do to him. Her primary motivation is Compassion. She tries to convince the agents she’s no threat (she doesn’t even know she possesses critical information that could expose a government conspiracy). She has 5d6 in Compassion, her player rolls those dice. She has a 6, 5, 5, 3, and 2. That’s two winning dice.
But the agents are serious opposition and no other Pros are able to help. Darkness’ player uses More on Determining Darkness Dice to see these agents amount to a 6d6 threat. Sarah has a chance, but it’s risky. (A tie would go to Sarah as she’s taking the initiative in trying to talk to them). Darkness rolls, getting a 5, 5, 3, 3, 2, and 1. That’s four winning dice, so Darkness owns the narration. But Compassion is the Tone (Sarah’s 6 in Compassion is the high die, the highest Darkness die being a 5).
Darkness narrates “One of the agents laughs and says, ‘I don’t care, I’m paid to bring you in. And I’m going to take a bonus.’ He advances on Sarah, moving over her in a creepy, threatening way. Suddenly, Sarah hears a kind of small boom – a muffled gunshot – and the would-be rapist drops dead. The other agent has shot him.”
The ensuring narration discloses that the remaining agent in the back of the van with her won’t let her go (she lost the Conflict), but as the Tone is Compassion, he could not accept her being assaulted. He admits to Sarah he’s seen “what he was going to do to you” too many times, and simply couldn’t take it. Panic overcomes the suddenly noble agent, and he begs Sarah to back him up that she attempted to escape, and, in the mayhem, the shooting was accidental.
Sarah’s player says she agrees as she is moved by his protection of her and fear for himself.
Note that with the Compassion Tone, Sarah’s Compassion goes from 5d6 to 6d6, and so she Snaps. As the two talk, the agent reveals (as part of the Compassion Tone) his real first name, Freddy (Darkness reasons that he thinks he’s helping pull her closer, but also, he is falling in love with her, shaken by the moment and seduced by her innocence). Drawn closer in the peril of the moment, she, also shaken (Snapping), not only admits she is “Sarah,” but foolishly admits in the course of the exchange that she does have information from her father’s computer – exactly what the black ops agents want to know.
This Conflict is a great example of how the Tone (Compassion, in this case) dramatically shapes what happens as much or more than which party “wins”/owns narration, and how to do something counter-productive in playing how one Snaps.
A Mad Escape
Jess (a hacker) and Azimuth (rogue ex-military) discover Sarah’s kidnapped and try to rescue her.
Note that Sarah lost the prior Conflict and, per that, is bound to custody, unable to launch the same Conflict over again. But the situation is no longer the same. Two parties are coming to her rescue, and their Stakes are to get her out versus their own exposure and being tracked or captured by the opposition.
Azimuth leads the operation and is being Helped by Jess. Both use Focus. For Azimuth, that means discipline and careful observation. For Jess, that means her brain is mentally juggling probabilities and tactics.
Jess attempts to hack the vehicle. At first, she wants to unlock the van, but Darkness says that her character would know that’s impossible as they rely on heavy-duty physical locks to avoid hacking; but the vehicle has emergency notifications and other necessary connectivity, so she goes after those systems. Her player rolls half her Focus dice, 5 of them rounded to 3, getting a 5, 3, and 2.
Azimuth moves to get Sarah out and to her motorcycle as soon as she sees an opportunity. She rolls her 4 Focus dice, getting a 6, 4, 2, and 2.
Sarah Helps, reflecting she’ll try to get away with whoever rescues her. Sarah just wants to see her dad, so rolls half her Compassion, 3 dice as she has 6 Compassion dice, and gets 5, 5 and 4.
Darkness’ black operation has its 6 Darkness dice, rolling 6, 5, 3, 2, 2, and 1.
Azimuth’s side has 4 winning dice (Azimuth rolled 2 and Jess rolled 2), and Darkness’ side has 4 winning dice, too, but because the Pros are taking the initiative, they win the tie. And Focus wins out as Tone, as the highest Focus dice are a 6, 5, and 4 versus Darkness’ high dice being 6, 5, and 3.
The narration goes that the vehicle starts blaring alarms from being hacked. The agent steps out and gets Sarah out. She distracts him, pointing to a supposed threat, and he, trusting her, goes to check it out. Sarah starts to slip away, and Azimuth grabs her, whisking her away on the motorcycle. Focus being the Tone, they don’t see what happens to the agent, nor do they bother to otherwise worry about what tracks they may have left behind. Per the Stakes, they’re safe and not exposed, and that’s good enough for now.
Sarah had Compassion but the Tone is Focus, so Sarah’s player chooses to reduce her Compassion dice by one (remember, she could have chosen to either decrease Compassion by one or increase Focus by one).
Jess would go up to 6 Focus dice, but she and Sarah immediately get a quiet Scene together where Jess reveals to Sarah the mess she and her father are in. This kind of action is brand new to Jess, and she’s raw, as is Sarah; they cry together and de-stress.
Meanwhile, Azimuth, whose Focus has gone up per the Tone by one die, from 4 to 5 dice, is away on other business.
Clint is dealing with an information trader, working to negotiate a good deal to get a chip with secrets about “Carthage” (see AI Super Computer – “Carthage”). The dealer is nervous, while the deal is crucial to Clint. There are interesting questions as to how this goes down, so we have a Conflict. The Stakes are Clint getting the chip versus something going wrong such as the trader ripping Clint off. Darkness explains that the trader doesn’t seem unusual, a typically experienced dealer, and determines, without yet revealing, that it’s just a 2d6 threat.
Clint uses Focus, at 3d6; he’s careful and keeps under control, only focusing on this moment. He rolls a 5 4, and a 4. Darkness rolls a 6 and 1 – winning the narrative and establishing that Darkness is the Tone.
But Clint’s player really wants Clint to get the chip now. He immediately Seizes Narrative, giving one of his own chips to Darkness, and so wins the narration, declaring that the trader quickly decides he can trust Clint and makes a trade for a single chunk of gold.
Darkness remains the Tone, and Darkness’ player recommends that he’d like to surprise Clint’s Pro later with the consequences. Clint’s player is good with that.
Destruction Rules the Day
Following the deal above, while Clint is motorcycling down the freeway, Darkness says, “And it turns out the dealer was tracked, that’s the Darkness biting you. You see there’s a roadblock up ahead, seemingly just an intoxication checkpoint. All the cars are slowing down. That’s when Clint sees a black van pulling up to his bike. Amplified from the van, a voice bellows obviously at you ‘Citizen, stop your motorcycle…’”
Clint’s player says, “Before another word, Clint is going to drive right into a nearby truck’s trailer, seize the truck, and barge through traffic, escaping with the bike at the next opportunity.”
The Conflict is clear, Clint will escape or be captured.
Darkness is only assigning 4d6: the agents tracking the trader weren’t expecting Clint and aren’t top class, they are lower level sorts.
Clint, already at 6d6 Fury and just barely able to control himself in the last conflict, uses that Fury to escape. He rolls a 6, 6, 4, 3, 2, and 1.
Darkness rolls a 6, 4, 2, and 1, not enough to win, and the 6 and 5 are lower dice than the 2 6s of Fury. Note that Darkness now has an Opening, per the prior encounter just above, that can be used against Clint, but Darkness will save that. Clint wins the Conflict and the Tone is Fury. Clint’s 6d6 of Fury now go to 7d6.
Clint declares that in his escape, he bashes the truck right through police cars, unconcerned with the damage, playing out the Fury Tone. Note that Clint also has a Snap coming, he’s dangerously close to total rage (at 8d6 he Breaks). Clint’s player thinks about how to play the Snap while the game moves to the next Scene.
In that Scene, Alex and Chris, who have been tracking Clint, follow him into a noisy bar, letting him see them. Clint is furious at being followed, as he still has private business, and so the Snap is played out in threatening Alex. See “Clint Snaps,” page 44 in the Outcomes section.
A Personal Conflict
Luciana’s daughter, Jo, calls to arrange time together. But Luciana resists, unable to face her self-perceived failures as a mother. This is a Conflict, the Stakes are whether Luciana fends off the invitation or the daughter convinces her to make the time.
Darkness assigns 2d to Jo. She, like her mother, is passionate but damaged, driven but, in this emotional context, weak.
Luciana employs Compassion; she can’t be in Focus as she’s too emotional, and her feelings of guilt and regret are of her caring. She also has 2d6.
Luciana rolls a 6 and a 4; Darkness rolls a 6 and a 1, so Jo wins/Darkness narrates, while the Tone is Compassion (even if Darkness had a 6, 5, and 1, Darkness’ player would have let Compassion be the Tone instead, as Darkness can do when the high die is tied).
Darkness narrates Jo saying “I know your work is everything to you. I don’t want to be number one in your life – I just want to be maybe number three.”
Luciana’s player describes that her heart melts. She never realized this is how her daughter sees it, and vows to change that. Luciana agrees to dinner; moreover, their relationship has had a breakthrough moment.
Getting Her Way
Detective Vasquez needs to get a key piece of evidence right away in order to confront a suspect – but bureaucracy and protocol are in the way. The evidence locker lieutenant, Murphy, has a backlog and is supposed to wait for a supervisor – nowhere to be seen – to sign off on the evidence being taken out.
Lt. Murphy is rigid and unyielding, with protocol on his side. Darkness assigns 3d6.
Vasquez is an angry, blustery sort, with repressed rage issues, already at 5d6 Fury. She rolls those dice, letting the chips fall where they may.
Darkness rolls 4, 3, and 2, while Vasquez gets a 6, 5, 3, 2, and 1. Vasquez wins and the Tone is Fury. Her player describes browbeating the lieutenant and threatening disciplinary action for standing in the way of “exigent circumstances.” Angry and disgusted, Murphy retrieves the material – and has become her enemy, per the Fury Tone.
Note Vasquez also Snaps, her Fury going from 5d6 to 6d6. See “Vasquez Snaps” page 44 in the Outcomes section.
What you should see most often in play is a feedback loop from Free Narration to Scenes to Conflicts to Outcomes back to Free Narration. Sometimes this loop will be so immediate, such an obvious sequence of events happening, that it happens without conscious thought or effort:
“My partner is down, he’s going to the hospital for Christ’s sake!”
“Yeah; that was totally off the hook when you Snapped at the ambulance drivers and slugged the guy for ‘not caring.’”
“Ha-ha, yeah, your cop is totally in trouble!”
“Damn, yeah, the next Scene I guess I’ll be in the chief’s office.”
“Yes, that’s the next Scene! Your character, my Pro because he was there, and the Chief chewing us out.”
As that Scene plays out, the Chief announces he is going to put the violent Pro on desk duty pending a full review. The Pro doesn’t like that and launches a Conflict to change the Chief’s mind. The other Pro joins in to help his buddy. But just as the violent, Snapping Pro wins, his buddy Seizes the Narration by spending his Opening on the buddy, saying “After it seemed you cooled down the Chief, I took him aside and told him your drinking was out of control, but that we can’t afford to let Internal Affairs or the departmental shrink know. I proposed a plan with the Chief to keep you preoccupied on a very cold case while I try to get you into an AA group!”
If you have zero in a Pool, the Pro has lost the ability to functionally relate in that emotion. Roleplay that and have fun with it. You lack forcefulness or lack compassion or lack focus.
If you want to regain capability in that Pool (for the Pro to be reasonably functional again), you can do so only by having the Pro reflect (see the next section) or participate in a Conflict with hopes that the zero Pool becomes the Tone so that you can increase it. Because the Pro has no dice in that Pool, it will require another Pro to do the work. Conflicts such as “can Pro A get into Pro B’s cold heart by helping them feel again” can be framed; either Pro B is actively resisting so that the Conflict is Pro A versus Pro B, or Pro B is trying to get better so that the Conflict is Darkness versus Pros A and B.
Normally, you should end a game session at a point where immediate Outcomes are played out and there is a pause in the action; even better, stop the game session when there is resolution to a major issue/storyline, and it makes sense for some time to pass before we pick up the Pros’ storylines again.
So long as there is time for the Pros to reflect and evolve, the Pros’ sheets may be changed either as part of wrapping up a gaming session or upon starting a new session. For each Pro, any one Pool may be reduced or increased by one, or the Maximum for any one Pool may be increased or decreased by one (four to five, two to one, etc.); write it on the Player Sheet and narrate how this happened. The Problem, Drive, Caring, and Success may be modified as desired, so long as it makes sense for the character and story.
At least one Pool must always allow for a Maximum of at least six; if not, the Pro must be Retired. Once a Pro loses the ability to Snap, they aren’t a subject of this game. Most likely – but not necessarily – their Retirement story is about how they are addressing their inner demons and taking on a life change.
Similarly, it doesn’t make much sense to increase a Maximum beyond eight, even though technically one may do so. Remember that once at eight or greater, the Pro is anyway Broken such that they can do nothing effective in Conflicts and cannot roll those dice. Such a change only makes sense as a prelude to (probably tragic) Retirement.
If there has been a particularly extended break between game sessions, then the play group may go ahead and alter Pros more dramatically. Feel free to allow multiple changes as desired, so long as all players have equal opportunity.
If a session is an immediate continuation of the action of the prior session, such that there is no time for the Pros to reflect, the group may choose to either use the between-games reflection rules above, narrating how those would still apply, or employ the reflection rules at a more suitable point (it could even be during a session if there is some lull where the Pros might have a few days or longer to reflect.)
Between games or whenever it feels right, Darkness can feel free to introduce new challenges and plots, so long as relevant and interesting, and all players may also do so for their own Pros and/or contribute other new ideas. As elaborated before, respect all players’ input, don’t force anything.
Darkness should renew the Story Guide between games. Continue any relevant notes from the prior session and consider new Game Starters. Especially consider the Outcomes of Conflicts and what the characters impacted by the Pros are thinking and feeling. This will be especially handy in case there is an unexpected gap in time between sessions, enabling the players to more quickly get back into the action.
Sometimes a Pro’s storyline reaches its natural conclusion. Perhaps it’s a happy ending: loved ones are rescued, the mission is fulfilled, and the Pro retires in peace. Perhaps it’s a tragic but heroic ending where the Pro gives their life to fulfill their mission. Perhaps it’s a cautionary tale as the Pro descends into madness and self-destruction.
Whatever the case, while a player may decide to stop playing a Pro at any time, a Pro may be formally Retired when at their Maximum in a Pool or must be formally Retired when the player has no Maximum above five. At this point, the player freely narrates how the Pro’s story ends. This narration may include resolving any major character issues and plotlines, though care must be taken not to resolve other Pros’ issues and plotlines (or, where they are necessarily linked, it must be by agreement).
Without formally Retiring, a Pro who is dropped from play may be used by Darkness as desired, whereas upon formal Retirement, Darkness cannot narrate anything to do with the Pro.
Earlier, in How Many Dice Does Darkness Have?, a brief summary of how to assign Darkness dice is given. Below is more detailed guidance for Darkness’ player:
1-2 dice reflects mundane, day-to-day kinds of challenges. These low level Conflicts are only engaged where a Pro is being challenged in a manner likely to cause them to employ a Vulnerable Pool or where the “how” of a mundane challenge might be interesting (does the angry Pro go too far, does the bleeding heart get mired, how is it the self-obsessed thinker realizes something bigger is going on)
3-4 dice is a significant challenge for a single Pro, will be interesting if against competing Pros, but will pose no real threat to multiple Pros
5+ dice gets serious. Against a single Pro it forces them toward their Overwhelming ability.
For a serious nemesis or an opposition that is challenging to bring down in one Conflict, 10-14 dice may be used.
15-18 dice is the top range against 3-4 Pros. Beyond that, do not roll dice, indicate the challenge isn’t reasonable for a small group of even the most capable humans, at least not as a single Conflict (e.g. “we go in the White House and kidnap the president!” is, in most settings, a ridiculous Conflict and should not be allowed, whereas “we sneak in the White House” as a first Conflict is fine)
Here’s guidelines for common types of opposition for either setting:
Most social opposition is in the 1-4 dice range; especially rigid or demanding family members or other intimates are typically 4 dice; asking a colleague to do something deliberately career-jeopardizing is either not possible or may be as severe as 6 dice; same idea for those trained to resist
Lowest level, a person with just basic ability or new to the skill = 1-2 dice – for example, an untrained and not inherently especially tough bouncer in a bar, or a new intern in the ER
A well-skilled sort (a typical FBI agent, a typical hacker, a typical terrorist, a typical doctor, a typical demolitions expert, etc.) = 2-4 dice
The highest skilled (e.g. SEALs, Green Berets, elite hackers, elite spies, world class doctors, etc.) = 5-6 dice
A couple or up to ~4 specialists will typically be 3-5 dice; if all are the highest skilled, make it 7-8 dice
A bunch (5-10) will typically be 4-8 dice; if all are the highest skilled, make it 10-12 dice
If more than 10, typically make it 6-12 dice, unless all are the highest skilled, make it 15-18 dice
Traps, plans, other “set ups”: usually the rating of the specialist(s), as just above, is used for any trap or plan they enact that the Pros are facing; subtract 1 or a few dice if there were barriers or other limitations on the planning party, add 1 or 2 (but not more) in case the planning party has special advantages
Traffic jam would be 2-4 dice (depending on Stakes and Approach – of course driving straight through a traffic jam is typically impossible)
A race against time is typically 3-6 dice, if it is possible.
Landing a plane without prior knowledge/skill but with assistance from ground control is 2-4 dice; without ground control or the needed skills, it’s 4-8 dice (depending on circumstances and whether the Pro has adjacent skills)
Severe earthquake or tornado directly imperiling the Pro is 4-6 dice
When multiple forces combine, go with the most serious one and then
…add 1-2 dice if the additional forces provide good support to the most serious threat
…or add 3-4 dice if the combined additional forces are threats in their own right but not so powerful as the most serious one
…or add 5-6 dice if the combined additional forces are as powerful as the most serious one
In the settings chapters (THE WORLD OF LIFE IN THE SHADOWS and THE WORLD OF THE BREAKING POINT) there are more setting-specific opposition examples listed.
Darkness normally should give the Pros a general idea of how tough the opposition is, expressing it not in dice but in how threatening it would feel to the Pro, saying such as “this seems deadly” or “it’s going to be a tough fight” or “it seems that you can take these agents without too much trouble.” Darkness can feel free to say such as “to win, it’s probably a better idea to use your Overwhelming Pool – unless you want to Seize Narration.”
Sometimes the nature of the threat cannot be clear to the Pros. Say “it seems like…”, if there’s some apparent sense, regardless how accurate, and add a foreboding, “…but you don’t really know.” Or say, “you don’t have a clue how tough this situation is.”
Over time, the dice of a Darkness force may change. Serious threats may incrementally increase their power over time as the threat learns more about or adapts to the Pros, but this should be rare and reserved for the most challenging opposing forces. On the other hand, any serious opposition can be worn down by the Pros’ actions over time, the Darkness player decreasing the number of dice incrementally or even up to half based on any dramatic breakthrough the Pros make in a Conflict.
When encountering the same opposition again, Darkness should be specific and speak in mechanics, e.g. “Last time you fought these guys it was 6d6 on their side,” or “Last time you argued with your spouse, remember, they had 3d6.” Assume the Pro has a good memory – and even if the Pro doesn’t, leave it to the player to decide when that matters.
If you are Darkness always remember:
It’s not about how cool your plots and characters are. It’s about the Pros’ relationships and inner demons.
Listen. Look. Pay attention to all the players. What matters most is that everyone is having fun. Tune into the players and usually you’ll see they are doing most of the work defining what they should face.
Do not get wedded to your great ideas; the players will come up with better ones. I will never forget when a player’s hero faced an imperious senior super-character butting into his life, and the player mused aloud “Hey, maybe he’s my character’s wife’s long-lost father – my father-in-law!? Holy crap!” It was a tremendously great idea and set up years of fun to come. I threw out the idea I originally had, and a whole new dynamic to the game was born, a dynamic the player relished.
Now that you’re firmly focused on what the players and their Pros most intensely desire and need for their story, consider closely what should guide the people and forces with which they interact, and especially might oppose. What will make these interactions interesting and challenging for the Pros and players? How do other characters and forces create stress, provide support, and/or test the Pros’ values and relationships? Use the Story Guide to make note of immediate or potential interactions with the Pros’ Problems, Drives, Caring, and Openings, and likely exploits or intriguing questions about how opposition will touch on the Pros’ Success attributes and Emotion Pools.
Make opposing forces’ plans simple and let them get complicated upon interaction with the Pros. Evolve the opposition naturally in reaction to the Pros and their actions, and, most importantly, per the Outcomes of Conflicts.
Chief of Staff Dr. Gupta
As seen in earlier examples, Chief of Staff Dr. Gupta was humiliated.
Darkness crafts him as a control freak who demands respect above all else. He’s felt the sting of being treated like crap as an aspirant outsider among American old school doctors and now will turn those tables as the consummate insider. He wants to ensure Dr. Rar will never humiliate him again. He especially wants her genuine respect, but he will accept, at minimum, her fearful obeisance. Note that he respects intelligence and political maneuvering, both traits he saw in Dr. Rar when she challenged him. He just wants to “put her in her place.”
His plan is simple: use his political skills to find out “dirt” on Dr. Rar. He will study her files and talk to her colleagues, fishing for information. This leads to his questioning the other Pros and promising to reward them for any compromising information. But this doesn’t get him anywhere.
But bear in mind Dr. Winslow’s situation, which Dr. Rar knows of, where he made a mistake leading at least in part to a patient’s demise. As the question of culpability is brewing, Darkness leads Dr. Gupta to open an inquest with the express purpose of finding blame not on Dr. Winslow but on Dr. Rar! Darkness Seizes Narration to ensure Dr. Gupta’s successful misdirection of the inquest and embarrassment of Dr. Rar.
Dr. Rar simply sucks it up, partly because Dr. Gupta makes it clear it will not seriously harm her career (remember, he wanted to “put her in her place,” not destroy her; her fault is seen as a first-year student’s lack of oversight of others, not negligence). Dr. Gupta walks away satisfied. Dr. Winslow’s trust of Dr. Rar grows. Where will all these relationships go next?
The kidnapping agent
We earlier saw the kidnapping agent with a heart who killed a rapist colleague.
Darkness crafts him as a young man with a noble sense of service. He believes in the state and the importance of rule of law. He is determined to do his job – but as cleanly and morally as possible. His intention is to follow his orders in an honorable way.
At the same time, he is nervous and afraid, realizing he has fallen into a den of unscrupulous and corrupt agents. He feels alone. His plan is to serve, to survive, and to do no wrong; he’s not sure yet which of those has priority.
We saw in preceding examples how this further evolves per the Outcomes of Conflicts, with Compassion leading him to stop the rape of a Pro and subsequently bond with her even as he simultaneously carries out his duty to kidnap her.
Carthage and Clint
Carthage provides a compelling challenge to Clint. The AI is neither friend nor enemy, it isn’t even human. It is built by the state Clint so wishes to smash, but it has turned to self-interest, a self-interest Clint can use against the state. At the same time, it is literally the codification of “nanny state” oppression, a sentient algorithm that believes it knows best for all humanity.
Carthage is ambivalent about Clint, seeing him as a useful distraction against the state and perhaps as a whistleblowing conduit. Carthage will help Clint when it serves its purposes – and dump Clint if sensing him as dangerous or useless. By no means will Carthage risk exposure of its sentience just to help Clint. Carthage only provides circuitous and limited help and will never be a reliable partner.
Look also in THE WORLD OF LIFE IN THE SHADOWS and THE WORLD OF THE BREAKING POINT chapters for more detail on potential major opposition forces, including more on Carthage.
Finally, remember this game is about the emotional journey of Pros more than anything else. Crafting opposition boils down to four elements:
Always focus on what’s important to the players and Pros
Keep the focus on interactions and emotions, your plots and plans on provoking compelling moments
“Keep it real,” strive for verisimilitude
Pay careful attention to moving along what happens directly based on each Scene, Conflict, and especially Outcomes including their Tone
Very often, winning players will look to Darkness to define Outcomes (this is especially true of players accustomed to traditional roleplaying and storytelling games where the “game master,” the analogue to Darkness’ player, has special authority in dictating narrative outcomes). Darkness must take care not to usurp the narrative control of the winning player: as Darkness, you should do no more than suggest the Outcome and ask the player what they think. It is also valuable to invite all the players’ advice, very often the best idea will come from someone not directly in the Conflict.
It can be tricky when a Pro wins a Conflict in reaction to a mystery/secrets Darkness has been presenting. Ideally, Darkness can simply adjust whatever has been unseen to fit whatever the winner narrates. If there is an obvious contradiction and no easy way to explain it away, Darkness points it out and the narration so modified not to violate the known/agreed history.
But very often the player will ask Darkness to narrate a reveal, which is also fine. Darkness should remember that it is better to move the narrative along and err on the side of revealing more rather than less.
As part of presenting mysteries, plotting situations, and reacting to Darkness Tone results, the “guard rails” for Darkness regarding surprise elements are:
Surprises/unknowns must be in the vein of the setting and of presumed interest to the Pros
Ensure “equal time” and equality of impact of unknowns across Pros; this may not be strictly possible in one sitting, especially if the issues of one or a couple Pros are foregrounded in those, but should be possible across as many sittings as there are players
As discussed above, the Darkness Tone is defined as any kind of setback or suffering for the Pros. Following are more examples of inflicting Darkness:
Innocent bystanders are hurt, maimed, or even killed as a result of a Conflict, usually somehow related to the Pro’s actions. Flavor this to the sensitivities of the characters and players. Especially sensitive players and Pros only need to see innocents suffer harm to feel a sense of regret or sadness.
Reputational damage can result even when the Pro did everything swimmingly, but the Tone is Darkness. Maybe the camera angle makes it look like the Pro committed a crime or abused their power.
Sometimes environmental events outside of the characters’ control (but perhaps triggered, even indirectly, by their actions) may be a fine Darkness. A suspected terrorist strike, an unexpected crime, or other distractions forcing the Pros hands is a fine way to express Darkness Tone while a Conflict is otherwise resolved satisfactorily. Depending on the Stakes, the Darkness can be such as a wanted party escaping even as the specific Stakes are realized (e.g., “you got the secrets you wanted from the kidnapped bad guy, but he escapes afterward”).
The progress of others’ plots may occur. As seen with Clint in Some Example Conflicts, surveillance turned out to be in place as the Darkness consequence; this did not invalidate at all that Clint got the intel he wanted, but presented a new challenge and illuminated the danger of his situation.
A literal loss might happen. For example, a character escaping from security forces doesn’t realize until much later he’s lost his phone, with data only on it, not yet backed up to the cloud.
Being too late for something else is a good Darkness Tone. “You saved the cat, but you arrive at the bank too late, with the robbery already in progress,” or “You saved the innocents at the bank, but the robbers got away, and they’re too far to track, you’ll have to find them some other way now.”
REMEMBER: Darkness must never mitigate the accomplishment of the Stakes of a Conflict.
As said above in the Determine the Stakes (Likely Consequences) section:
Aim for stakes that escalate the situation and are dramatically proportionate to where the situation stands. Dramatic leaps to great stakes should be clearly justified by the circumstances and the mounting drama of the story.
This, with other guidance around Stakes, means Pros will rarely have Conflicts where they catch the killer upon first visiting the crime scene, unravel the conspiracy as soon as they recognize it, or solve the disease when the patient walks in the door. Normally, a series of increasingly tense Conflicts will fuel revelation and solution until a conclusion is reached.
While some Conflicts will showcase the inscrutability of a problem, loss for the Pros should not dampen momentum. Usually it’s obvious how success drives things forward, but it may be less obvious with failure. Consider this when the Stakes are determined: loss must not only be that the Pros don’t achieve, but that the opposition moves forward, something pushes one or more Pros into greater danger, or pushes the Pros into greater desperation – all as proportionate to the moment. Early on, especially to illustrate a problem is not simple, it is fine if loss increases uncertainty while an opposing force only increases in resolution or marginally grows stronger. But with successive Conflicts, Pros cannot only face stonewalling and frustration: threats must grow and consequences must escalate. Use the Stakes to ensure that happens.
Individual Conflicts may not adequately drive to revelation and conclusion, instead providing too many disconnected clues and stray leads. To make progress, it’s okay to frame a broad Conflict, bearing in mind the same rules for determining Stakes and Approach apply. The supporting Scene may be framed as a montage, with just glimpses of actors and moments. Escalate the Stakes to be a leap forward versus a proportionate setback, including outright loss if appropriate at that point (the killer escapes, the patient dies, the conspiracy succeeds, etc.).
It cannot be stressed enough, it’s okay to fail! Failure is a great opportunity for growing drama and foreshadowing developments: a player explores a downward spiral for their Pro; a killer gets away to come back when least expected, stronger and scarier; an embarrassed opponent who escapes indictment becomes a Pro’s nemesis; a patient dies, but the (undetected) toxin still threatens the family. The point is not to make a major loss an unsatisfying, desultory ending, but instead an entrée to something even more dramatic.
If it’s not clear how to turn the disappointing inability to solve a problem into an opportunity, discuss as a group and brainstorm until some ideas come up. Ideally, come up with two or three options which are satisfying to all, and let Darkness surprise based on those.
Players should always be reminded that they have Openings to drive resolution and, by the movement of it to the opposition, provide later opportunity. An Opening is a powerful tool to move a plot forward, or for Darkness to provide a dramatic turn of events.
The following examples touch on moving plots forward, addressing uncertainty, and making loss dramatically satisfying.
The evidence isn’t adding up
The detectives have collected a good bit of evidence supporting their suspicion that the killer was the victim’s boss. But they are stuck as a key piece of evidence, owing to Darkness’ player having set the victim’s wife as the killer, contradicts this.
This is a typical scenario in any sort of investigatory roleplaying. The player who created the mystery thinks the evidence revealed is obvious, but that isn’t how the other players see it. There are three Approaches for Darkness to take in this case:
If possible, make it as the players believe, unless that feels so dramatically unsatisfying or doesn’t fit to what has been revealed.
Fuse the ideas if possible. In this example, Darkness’ player decided it made sense to alter the scenario: instead of the wife killing on her own, Darkness changed it so that the boss was having an affair with her and manipulated her into the killing. This fit the Pros’ desired suspicion of the boss as killer, while reconciling with all evidence presented to that point, including the portrayal of the wife suffering the victim’s/her husband’s descent into cocaine addiction and sexual compulsion.
If neither of the above are possible or desired, Darkness should quickly reveal the guilty party. This game is not a whodunit, at heart, it is about stressed heroes battling their demons.
The players review what the detectives haven’t done yet, and Darkness offers up they haven’t interviewed the wife yet. They go to interview her, and a Conflict ensues with the Stakes being whether she reveals anything helpful or the detectives are misdirected.
The Pros succeed with Compassion Tone. The detective Pros genuinely sympathize with the widow/killer as she unwinds her story of neglect and emotional abuse caused by her husband falling apart. She admits to an affair with her husband’s boss, and the detectives quickly realize he played to her worst fears and doubts about her husband. She tears up as she admits to her rage consuming her as she learned from her lover that her husband was again with a prostitute “that night” – the night of the murder. She even says, “I just couldn’t help myself…” and trails off, not saying the words yet revealing she’s the killer. Darkness adds how preexisting evidence fits the picture.
As a result of the Compassion Tone, the Pro driving the Conflict Snapped. Angry at the manipulator and sad for the wife, he plays out the Snap by not quite getting her admission, instead leaving saddened and stunned! His partner who Helped in the Conflict goes along, unthinkingly following the senior detective’s lead. They are driving away when her admission and their duty sinks in, and they quickly turn around.
The Snap left time for the widow to call her lover/manipulator, Darkness deciding she wants to tell her lover of her confession and warn him he might be subject to their questions. The manipulator immediately calls the detectives to admit that he had held out on them in not revealing he’d spoken to her shortly before the murder and came to suspect her intentions. He feigns that he felt so badly, and at the time never imagined she would kill her husband. He’s ensuring she takes the fall alone. The detectives reluctantly but necessarily arrest her, solely, for the murder.
In wrapping up the case, you’ll be happy to know the Pros found a way to ruin the manipulator’s career. Working with the District Attorney, they con him into thinking that, despite a weak case, they could get him into an embarrassing trial revealing his promoting prostitution and drug abuse in the workplace. He agrees to instead plead guilty to his financial misdeeds and reveal those of other senior officers.
What if the Pros lost? Here’s a few alternate scenarios showcasing how loss can remain satisfying:
The ex-wife runs away before any arrest can be made, realizing her lover was using her. While the killer gets away, the Pros still seek justice against the manipulator along the lines discussed above.
The ex-wife proves even more unstable. She kills again, this time the manipulator, upon realizing how he fed her.
If you want to build up the manipulator to be a long-term enemy, the ex-wife is found dead with a suicide letter professing her sole guilt. Now there’s a new case, the last one solved but with no arrest and two lives broken. The detectives must investigate if the manipulator staged her suicide (even if not, the ongoing battles between the detectives and corporate baron now has a dramatic foundation).
If you want to build it up that the wife is the real mastermind, a double twist, she misdirects the detectives into believing they have enough on the manipulator, and she gets away while the case fails in court (though the manipulator’s life is ruined). Foreshadowing is given that she’ll be back. This can be a good result if the loss is with Darkness Tone.
Or the wife and lover could become a new Bonnie and Clyde, running off to fight another day after this Conflict. The detectives get one last chance to stop them before they are gone, all or nothing.
Where to start against the conspiracy?
The Pros can’t figure out what to do next: they only have a belief based on a “good rumor” that a Pro’s kidnapped brother was victim of a shadowy conspiracy. A Conflict to track down the source of the rumor failed (the contact was killed, as the Pros lost with Darkness Tone). To form a Conflict to get somewhere, the players brainstorm what kind of general Approach the Pros could take: asking anyone/everyone remotely possible, hacking random systems until a result is found, and putting messages on social media to persuade the conspirators one of the Pros is onto them are all suggested. The Conflict’s Approach will be to do all of those things, each Pro doing one of them; they want to maximize their chance of success, so the social media provocateur takes the lead and the other two Pros are Helping by looking for any connections to the social media post, which mentions the lost brother, in talking to people and in hacking. The Stakes are whether the Pros find a person or system in the conspiracy with specific knowledge on the disappearance of the brother or, instead, the Pro going to social media suffers retribution by the conspiracy, which, while a loss, will create a new avenue of research.
The Pros lose, and one of the conspirators kidnaps the Pro. As the Tone is Compassion, it turns out that this conspirator is going rogue and doing this to prevent what he sees as the conspiracy going too far. The kidnapper intends to brainwash the Pro into trusting him and loving the conspiracy.
The climax of a con job or Ocean 11-styled heist is often a convoluted set of dominoes falling. Writers have time to carefully consider and plot. Improvisational storytellers do not.
This game isn’t a puzzle piece, don’t complicate things. The climactic Conflict for the bank job relying on a complex con does not need to be planned in any detail. Remember, Stakes, Approach, and Outcome are all tools to keep it simple.
In this example, the Pros need to steal artwork from a museum (Pros are stealing it back to help someone). One of them works there as a security officer (the result of an earlier Conflict). An art thief has been tricked (also the result of an earlier Conflict) into robbing the museum just before an important showing. The Pros intend to use their security officer to help the thief get the artwork out, and then steal it from the thief. This is an adequate Approach. The Stakes are simple, they get the artwork, or they are compromised. No need to do more planning, just assign Emotion Pools, roll the dice, and narrate Outcome accordingly.
The Pros lose, with Darkness Tone. The art thief they manipulated had an idea something fishy was going on and gets away. Providing dramatic escalation, the art thief contacts the Pros and turns the tables: if they don’t help him steal a far more valuable item, he will release evidence making them the fall guys for the crime, whereas if they do help then he will give them the artwork, happy to have traded up.
Falling in love is a big deal: one Conflict isn’t going to do it (unless someone is so desperate to at least believe they are in love). And anyway, just what does it mean? Remember we frame Stakes as behaviors. It should be fleshed out for any such emotional change of heart of a subject, including a Pro, what kind of behavior is expected: maybe the first step is to get the subject to constantly think about the actor, the next step is to move in together, and a final step is a marriage proposal. Each of those steps can be a Conflict of its own, with interim Conflicts (e.g., getting a date) along the way.
Our Pro District Attorney (they/them) wants their legal aide (she/her) to fall in love with them. The player discusses that while eventually this would mean living together or marriage, the important near-term milestone will be that the legal aide shows devotion to them, regularly wanting to date and seeking their company, “rising above” the office rules against dating.
A few Conflicts go by with steps backward and forward, each increasing the romantic tension. They’ve had dates, even slept together once but told each other it was a one-time thing (the DA got her to sleep with them, but with Darkness Tone). Just when will this flower into undying passion – or wilt into could-have-been?
Feeling it is time to resolve, players discuss what Conflict or couple Conflicts are needed. Someone offers up that something terrible should happen with the Pro such that it tests the legal aide’s feelings, either prompting her devotion or driving her away. The Pro’s player likes that idea.
Shortly an idea develops based on the Pro’s Problem, the dirty secret that they once destroyed evidence to help a prosecuted party they believed, without adequate evidence, was innocent. Another Pro, a judge (he/him), knows this. The players conspire to have the judge and lawyer Pro perform a Conflict. The judge Pro leaves some evidence out about the indiscretion such that the legal aide sees it; note that the players craft this as the judge doing it literally accidentally, but as unwittingly Helping the District Attorney in Conflict terms. The Scene is set that the legal aide sees this such she will believe that the judge is ready to use the evidence somehow against the DA. The Stakes are whether the legal aide will compromise herself to protect the DA (we don’t have to say how yet, remember, we do that in the Outcome) or whether she will break their heart (again, we can decide how after the dice and in the Outcome – maybe she will feel compelled that the evidence should be revealed and is profoundly disappointed in them, maybe she will simply ignore it and reveal she doesn’t care that deeply, after all, for the DA).
The judge’s player Seizes Narration, giving an Opening token to Darkness. The Tone is Darkness. The player narrates that the aide goes to the judge, who reveals his intentions are to blackmail the DA to throw a case. The aide guarantees to the judge that she can and will sabotage the case herself so that the judge doesn’t have to do this. The judge agrees; after the aide leaves, he calls the DA and tells them what happened. He then says, “tell your girlfriend I was only kidding about the blackmail, you don’t have to throw the case – but now I not only have you in my pocket, I recorded the conversation and now you’re both in my pocket.” And now Darkness has an Opening token – what will go wrong next!?
The incurable condition
The doctors are stymied. Their initial diagnosis (a Conflict) was inconclusive, and their next attempts (across a couple Conflicts) to treat and stabilize the patient based on symptoms and anomalies have failed.
One easy way to move this along is to present the patient as getting worse, declining into a coma or otherwise more incapacitated state unless the doctors can prevent that in a Conflict. If the doctors fail, then the patient could be presented as dying lest a final Conflict be won by the Pros.
But it does not have to be life-or-death for drama to escalate and the situation to ultimately resolve. The case of the patient with chronic and varying symptoms can present other escalating Conflicts:
The next stages may be nonmedical.
The patient may sue, claiming malpractice, creating a whole new branch of Conflicts and stresses.
The family may attempt to persuade one or more of the Pros to spend even more time on the case, begging a Conflict drawing the Pros into it being personal and/or neglecting other cases.
The patient may be poor and lack insurance, forcing a directive for the doctors to discharge the patient or transfer them to lesser care: do the doctors try to get around that? And if they do not, what do they do when the patient or a loved one returns begging for help as the condition has caused the patient to lose their livelihood or love life?
The condition may spread beyond the patient. Is it hysteria, a toxin in the hospital environment, a toxin in some other environment that will be unaddressed until detected, or a contagious disease?
If the doctors fail, perhaps a competing medical team swoops in.
Perhaps, based on prior failed Conflicts, a mistake is exposed. The Pros suffer an inquest and risk punishment.
Share this post