dungeons as monsters

Aaron Griffin’s post Procedural Exploration reminded me how good Planarch Codex is and its procedural method for generating dungeons. I used it a fair bit a few years back; here’s one that I wrote up.

I’m definitely going to consider something like this for my Torchbearer game, should be perfect for exploring the fog.

Saved from G+ meltdown: 12 April 2013

So I used the Dungeon as Monsters method from the Planarch Codex DW supplement to create a warehouse in my Technoir (via Apocalypse World) game. I came up with three dangers, semi-randomly, and it all worked really well.

Madness: dominate choices XXXX
Sewers: befoul and disgorge XXX
Cliff: endanger OOXXX

One of the PCs has a flying surveillance drone “Bessy” that got badly hit by heavy-calibre rounds fired from a holy avenger’s high powered sniper rifle. So Bessy ended up crash landing in a warehouse leaking radioactive fuel.

I started tonight’s session with a couple of PCs scoping out the warehouse that stank of shit. Grey parkoured his arse to a second storey window (Cliff +1, Sewer +1).

Grey found himself on a walkaway above a huge pit dug out the length of the warehouse, 4 or 5 metres below street level, with broken pipes and filled with effluent and seething with worms.  He also spotted Block-Rockers working down there with sledgehammers, in the shit  (Madness +1, Sewer +1, Cliff +1).

Climbing a rope to the third floor, Grey crossed a room full of drugged, sick or exhausted people and has an interesting conversation with a Mind-Blower, who was smoking a peace pipe, about his mission to find the alien spacecraft (Madness +2). O yeah, he got a bucket of live worms in case he got the munchies.

Then Grey climbed the stairs into a room full of tall vats of sugar. He found Bessy wedged in the rafters and a bunch of kids dead beneath, blue-faced on her leaking radioactive fuel (Madness +1, Cliff +1).

Then Grey rolls snake eyes trying to get Bessy down and out of the building, the fire being she’d roll free and landed in the pit, deep in shit.

The sugar came in handy for dropping bags at height on Bessy’s owner when he came in, gunning down Block-Rockers and bossing people around. The proceeding battle got dangerous enough that both PCs backed off and regrouped.

Overall, Dungeons as Monsters worked, the dangers and rolling inspired me and the “dungeon” hung together well.



The Maw. The Abyss. Hell. All names of a hidden valley, smote by the gods, forever shrouded in a corrupting fog, a poisonous wound filled with unplundered treasures and terror, and a haven for those who hunger to flee the world. For a whole society of exiles, criminals, and refugees hide in its murky depths, in safe harbours carved out of the wasteland. Maybe small, overcrowded and filthy, but to you, torchbearer, they’re heaven.

Torchbearer campaign: Abyssal flames

Most outsiders consider the Abyss an uninhabitable ruin, a void. Yet people live in the Abyss, some precisely because the world avoids it.

I thought Torchbearer would be good for adventures in this region because it’s focused on exploring and surviving hostile environments. And I’m interested in discovering how the fog creates a different space of play in Torchbearer.

This is a design post where I’m working through my ideas. Comments are welcome.  


The ancient ruins of a city lie hidden deep beneath this fog. Legends say the city once shone atop these mountains, its towers a jewel at the highest peaks. Then the city was smitten, the very ground beneath plunged to where it now lies, surrounded by sheer stone walls and sealed off from the world. The ancient ruin is eternally choked with a monstrous fog, hiding terrors and treasures alike.

who lives there

I think of the fogbound as like Belters from the Expanse:

  • surrounded and connected by an uncaring void (space=fog)
  • finding safety and a home in something cobbled together (spacecraft=settlement)
  • obsessively checking their equipment and life support systems because those who don’t die.

This means that the town phase in Torchbearer would be where people have built defences against the fog: vaults, buildings, caverns and the passages between. Most of these settlements will be cramped and crowded. Resources would be limited, even the air you breath has to be paid for.

Extending the Belter analogy, I like the idea that those exposed longterm to the fog become so adapted that they can’t live anywhere else, like Belter born in space can never live safely on Earth. Maybe the fogbound become fogbreathers?


The journey between settlements in the Abyss can be an adventure in itself. There are two essential ways: through the fog or on fog-free paths.

The Abyss is no an enormous land, but it is treacherous to navigate. This means that, as the crow flies, neighbouring settlements are never far apart in the Abyss; most are a few hours walk from their closest neighbour. However, a few hours walk in the fog is a mad, terrible adventure, even for the well-prepared. PCs travelling through the fog are squarely in the adventure phase. This puts extra pressure on PCs when they’re going to a ruin or other adventure location, since getting to a safe haven will typically take a roll or two. And finding a safe camp in the fog is nigh impossible.

There are a few hard-won paths between settlements that are barricaded against the fog and its denizens. Some of these are incomplete, only providing safe passage between halfway stations; others have fallen into disrepair and been infiltrated; or where brigands and toll keepers have set up camp and harass and beset travellers. All up though, the fog-free paths are much safer. However, the paths are often indirect, tortuously narrow, and sometimes crowded, so a day’s travel often only takes you a short distance, as the crow flies. PCs travelling these paths use the Torchbearer Overland Travel Rules (playtest), so essentially use up food and resources to avoid consequences. 

Depending on how dangerous adventuring is in the fog, and on the inconvenience of the fog-free around the Abyss, this seems to offer interesting choices for the PCs. Definitely another reason not to make the fog too punishing. 

the fog

The foggy void between settlements is a wilderness of lurking dangers. Running two blocks on an ancient street is crazy risky: there’s monsters, brigands, and the fog itself.

But why is the fog dangerous?

I’m still exploring the possibilities. I do want the fog to provide interesting choices, not to just be another tax for the adventurers. Torchbearer surely has enough already.

twists & weather

I find Stone Dragon Mountain inspiring in the way it has a list of different twists for each part of the adventure on the mountain. I’m keen on cutting up the Abyss into different zones. No more than six zones, but that’s a hunch.

I can imagine fewer treasure hunters have ventured into the more treacherous zones so this could be a way to balance risk and reward to give players interesting choices. 

I’m hoping to make twists related to each zone’s geography and the ruins, peoples, and monsters located there. So I’m thinking of rivers, crevasses, geothermal vents, bridges, fogwyrms, etc.

I’m also thinking about twists related to changes in the fog. Because while the fog is always there, I can imagine a variety of fog types which present different types of dangers and opportunities. Maybe different zones could tend to have different climates and different types of weather. A source of inspiration for this is the seasons and weather types in Middarmark. I think most will work as is, only needing a little foggy twist.

Here some examples of twists for some (but not all) types of fog:

  • Twist: Bad air. Counts as factor recovering for recovering from exhausted.
  • Twist: Thin air. Torches only give off half-light (light for 1, dim for 1).
  • Condition: Sick from bad air.
  • Condition: Injured. Corrosive fog burns the skin.

Wind is interesting. I can see that clearing an area of fog, even if only temporarily could be a blessing and a curse. It may mean people need less protection against the fog’s ill effects, but could also mean that characters cannot sneak through the fog and are more easily spotted by enemies.  

Similarly, I like the idea of some areas having a wind that pushes and pulls the fog like the tides of the sea. I think this could provide interesting opportunities for journeying between adventures, but also in adventures where areas are tidal, sometimes clear and sometimes befogged, like clockwork. I like the idea of tying this tide to the turn count, perhaps every six turns the tide changes.

There are also some ideas to play around with from my post on poison triggers. For example, breathing this fog will only make you sick if you run or otherwise build up a sweat, otherwise its inert.


At its most basic, fog limits visibility and distorts sounds. So it will make travelling treacherous. So I think most fog is a factor in all Pathfinder test and any action that depends upon seeing any great distance, like spotting enemies lurking.

On the other hand, this also means characters in the fog have +1D for sneaking or stealth.

I can imagine most fog in the Abyss obscures the sunlight. Maybe there are a few hours of daylight around noon, but otherwise its dim light. Perhaps some places at higher altitudes or where the fog thins, this window of daylight is longer.


I have a few ideas for throwing in some Torchbearer resource management. Air filters to protect against bad air,  clothing and greases when the fog is corrosive, enchanted bells that thin surrounding fog, bellowstones that expel currents of fresh air, etc. 

the grind

I have considered that adventuring in the fog could be akin to winter adventuring, where you earn a condition every three turns, instead of four. I mean this might make sense if the fog is particularly noxious. But I think this makes things more dangerous than I want. And what if they go winter adventuring in the fog. Madness I know, but I’d have to work out a way to manage that! I’m not convinced it’s a good way to go.


What if exposure to the fog changes people? For example, maybe it taxes a character’s nature; the more dangerous the fog, the more taxing. Or maybe some types of fog have healing qualities: if you expose yourself to the fog it removes a condition but also taxes your nature.  I can imagine some interesting traits relating to a person adapting to the fog. You know, becoming a fog breather.


Hopefully, I can work these ideas up into something usable for my forthcoming Torchbearer game. Let me know if you have thoughts or ideas, as you can see this is still a work in progress. 

poison triggers

I often feel game rules for poisons fall short. Super niche I know. I’ve been examining some old ideas for the poisonous fog region I’m developing for Torchbearer called Abyssal Flames.

RPGs have rules for different poison types, effects, delivery methods, duration, antidotes, immunities, crafting rules, decay… you name it. Critically though, once a poison is delivered it’s only matter of time till it takes full effect. Sometimes instantly, others over minutes or hours; nevertheless, the poison is delivered and it’s effect triggered in the same moment.

This makes some sense of course. Generally, animal venoms and real poisons work like this. And delivery is challenge enough; why complicate matters further. But in fantastic tales and adventures, it’s a missed opportunity.

Rather than simply waiting for a poison to take hold, it’s effect can be triggered by something. Perhaps the most realistic trigger is the poisoned person doing something, for example moving, staying still, or sleeping. In the film Crank, Chev will die if his adrenaline drops too low. A solid excuse for an action movie, but also an example of a poison being triggered by a character doing something, in this case calming down.

We could describe this as an internal change. But I’m less interested in the wizardry of biochemistry and more in what’s makes interesting gameplay. So it’s more useful to think about what a person does, not what their parts do.

For even more fantastic triggers, the poison could be triggered by emotions or intentions. This moves poisons closer to magical gheas or curses, but I think there are interesting ideas to explore without going full gonzo.

personal triggers

# Action Emotion Intention
1 Moving/stilling Hope To keep/give
2 Slowing/accelerating Fear To want/ignore
3 Walking/running Pain To attack/protect
4 Falling/climbing Anger To pursue/flee
5 Waking/sleeping Greed To show/hide
6 Sinking/swimming Pride To love/hate
7 Talking/silent Lust To argue/negotiate
8 Quiet/loud Envy To remember/forget
9 Reading/writing Love To stop/start
10 Sitting/standing Joy To help/hinder

So we can have a poison triggered by time or action/inaction. Another option is interacting with something in the environment. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame explores this idea beautifully. It follows a series of deaths where people unexpectedly burst into flame. Of course, they were poisoned and the trigger was the touch of sunlight.

This kind of environmental trigger has two parts:

  1. what a person interacts with and
  2. how they interact with it.

I’ve listed a bunch below. Some combinations will be more mundane: drinking wine, being cut, being in complete darkness. Others will be stranger and more magical: seeing a symbol, hearing a bell ring, being far from a certain river.

environmental triggers

# Interaction Energy Liquid Gas Solid Thing
1 Inhaled, smelt Sound Fresh/salt water Breath Salt Shape
2 Ingested, drunk, tasted Vibration River/sea Flammable Sand Colour
3 Contact, touched Electricity Oil Wind Food Symbol
4 Injected, bitten, stung Heat Sweat Stagnant Meat People
5 Immersed, surrounded Cold Blood Smoke Plant Animal
6 Perceived, seen, heard Light Wine Steam Metal Weapon
7 Felt, experienced Darkness Rain Bubbles Earth God
8 Near, far Magic Tears Fog Fabric Element


Personal and environmental triggers are also useful for designing antidotes. Rather than just a mundane substance, an antidote can be a secret ritual or process that neutralises a poison. Essentially, antidotes can be triggers that turn a poison off, rather than on.

Mundane antidotes could be the smell of fresh rain, not blinking for several minutes, or running underwater. Fantastic antidotes could be hearing a certain melody, feeling the outline of a special symbol, or hiding from someone who seeks you for three days.

the right tool for the job

This can turn poisons into tools useful for more than just murder. Rather than blunt drugs of intoxication, stupor, or death; a well-designed poison can be precise and surgical.

For example, a shipment could be guaranteed to have an armed escort if all the ship guards cannot walk on land for more than a few steps without terrible nausea. This condition (poison) could be neutralised at once when they complete delivery and see the receiver’s seal stamped on the cargo.

I mean, many poisons already essentially have magical effects; they are magical potions with a bad reputation. Fine tuning when they are triggered, both on and off, is no great leap and the added flexibility can make them a more useful and interesting tool. Depending on how far you take it, this can go from merely intensifying and extending the dangers of poisons to turning poison-craft into another school of magic.


Merry 2019!

I’ve been enjoying my presents, a fine bottle of Scotch and a finer copy of Jason Lutes’s Berlin. I find both are best chewed with care and savoured slow.

Perfect for the quiet moments between family visits.

black seven: first session

Saved from G+ meltdown: 17 Nov 2014

One roleplaying game I’ve played recently is Black Seven. Here’s a run down of the fun from the first session.

We played online, me as GM and two players. It was the first time we had played it.

The game focuses only on agents infiltrating an enemy facility. This limit is good, keeping the play tight and focused on situation where the player characters shine as are uber-competent, stealthy assassins. It also ensures the prep is remains relevant and useful.

Before play I designed a mission, Operation Key Octave. The overall concept for the game was framing a Quebec separatist group with attacking the Canadian Parliament. The idea was a biotechnology corporation, Air Médical, was covering up a theft of an experimental aerosolised live-virus vaccine designed to inoculate people against Ebola. Importantly, Air Médical had affiliations with the Quebec separatists. The Agents’ mission would be to extract information about who stole experimental drugs by interrogating an internal investigator of Air Médical. This information would lead them to steal back the experimental vaccine from the Lifesavers, a radical medical group based in Liberia, and then use the vaccine on the Canadian Parliament, making it look like an attack by the Quebec separatists.

So I wrote up three facilities, having 8 resources to use, 4 for each player. The objectives, features, static targets and number of guards for:

1) the home of the Air Médical investigator, as well as the high security gated community that surrounds it, located in the Côte d’Ivoire;

2) the shanty town in Liberia that is the base for the Lifesavers; and

3) the grounds and maintenance areas of the Canadian Parliament.

I found the prep was fun, the steps straightforward, and provided just enough to structure the mission. It stilled required a fair bit of improvising during play, fleshing out situations and characters, but I enjoy that kind of pressure.

We all rolled up characters as we have ambitious plans to take turns GMing missions. Agents Jackal, Gecko and Raptor come alive.

Gecko and Raptor start Operation Key Octave. I wasn’t sure on how much of a low-down they should get, but I gave them most of the information about the mission, including the ultimate aim to frame the Quebec separatists. I didn’t tell them about the second facility because that information was to be earned from completing the first facility.

The Agents glide on wing suits into the compound. They quickly scared one guard out of the facility and knocked out another. They hacked the security network, entering their RFID tags, allowing them to navigate the community without triggering any alarms. They turned off the alarm system of their targets’ house, took out another guard, avoided the other roaming patrol, and successfully vaulted the wall of the house compound. Once inside they took out all the guards, compromised the camera network, tranquilised the guard dogs and leisurely interrogated the target. They escaped using the target’s own vehicle. The information they extracted has led them to the second facility, a shanty town in Liberia and the base of a radical medical group, the Lifesavers.

Formally, they were very successful with this facility. They took out all the static targets, neutralised 4 of the 7 guards in the first area (gated community) and took out all 4 guards around the target’s house. They avoided raising the Threat level, never got noticed though it was close on several occasions, and only one Agent was exposed and only on one occasion. Professionals.

The game did really well to create the atmosphere of this style of video game. There was lots of slips and recoveries. The players worked hard neutralising security systems and creatively tricking and taking down guards. The camera network was particularly gruelling, doubling the number of required positioning rolls. Having a high Sneak rating seemed very advantageous in this scenario, though we were only just coming to grips with the rules, particularly the usefulness of taking out all the guards quickly. The players were rather risk adverse, but it was appropriate and really a credit to the system building tension and providing the toing and froing that comes with sneaking about hostile territory. It does well to do this, particularly given it has to deliver that experience on the first go-through because the players can’t save game, try an approach, fail terribly, and then replay from the saved point.

Next session will focus on the second facility, which is shorter, so with any luck they will also finish the final facility and the mission. Fun times!

code black hack: deception

Deception plans

This rejigs the Code Black Hack for deception scores, particularly longer cons. A deception is about getting someone to do something. It uses trickery but that’s merely the means, not the end. A con differs from a simple deception mainly by who you target and the payoff. Tricking a guard to get into the royal treasury might be a deception, but tricking the king to gift you the treasury is a con. And if that con goes smoothly, the king will thank you for the trouble to haul it away.

A lot of this is inspired by The Long Con by The Walking Mind. I’ve used this approach regularly in a Blades game I run, particularly memorable was when the Butcher Birds decided to flip Baszo Baz.

Action roll

Cool replaces Hidden/Controlled, Suspect remains the same (but deception has reduced effect), and Opposed replaces Hunted/Desperate (deception has reduced effect and requires set up action). Noticed becomes Questioned. Exposed becomes Honest.

You can act to improve Suspect to Cool, but only if no characters or cohorts are Questioned or Honest. You can only improve Opposed to Suspect by minimising or bypassing the preparations the mark has brought against you.

Consequences and harm


Questioned replaces Noticed. When you are Questioned, you may have the mark in a web of deceit, but they are asking difficult questions and testing you. At Cool or Suspect, if you fail to remove Questioned promptly, the position worsens. At Opposed, if you fail to remove Questioned promptly, the mark will put into play something they’ve prepared to counter your well-laid plans. They’ll prioritise countering characters and cohorts that are Questioned and Honest, then those just Questioned, then those just Honest. They won’t counter those who are neither Questioned nor Honest.


Honest replaces Exposed. When you are Honest, you use truth to ground your lies and allay suspicion. While the mark does not cross-examine you, they may learn something to use against you later.

The Score

A con relies on finding a hook, something to leverage the mark into doing what you want. Think of the hook as a vice: pleasure, luxury, obligation, faith, etc. It can be an ambition for revenge, a thirst for oblivion, or something weirder. Good info-gathering work.


In an infiltration, you don’t start at cracking the safe. First, you get past the perimeter guard, break in through the roof, bypass the inner security, and only then get in front of the safe. Likewise, there’s a way to pace a con. Get the mark’s:

  • attention: Try fitting a mould of people they expect to meet.
  • interest: Find or create a problem or solution related to their hook.
  • confidence: Convince them you offer an actual opportunity to solve a real problem.
  • decision: Push them to do what you’re conning them to do, to seize the opportunity while it lasts.

Each of these may be a clock depending on: the crew’s history with the mark; the mark’s Tier, savviness, or connections; and circumstances that make a problem more immediate, a solution more complex, or the mark more desperate. Filling these clocks completes the con and the mark does what you want. Taking advantage of their decision and action can be another score in itself.

The GM should also keep a clock to track the mark’s Suspicions or similar. If that fills, then the score’s bust and the mark sees the con for what it is.

Preparations and counterplans

A con can be one protracted scene but often works better as a series of connected meetings, places and people. Often you’ll run this is kind of score against a powerful person or group, so scenes can involve meeting advisors and experts that the mark relies on and trusts. Answering their questions and soothing their suspicions can be a great way to win over the mark.

Such advisors and experts are part of the mark’s preparations to protect themselves. These will be a mix of defences in place as well as new ones set up to counter the crew should you prove troublesome. The higher Tier the mark, the better prepared they should be. This prep may be as a simple as a handy blade and a ferocious temper (harm), a few brutes as bodyguards (harm), a well-connected information broker (ticks on Suspicion clock), or even bluecoats bribed to waylay characters or cohorts (harm or reduced effect). More elaborate preparations might be having false witnesses ready to frame the crew to gain leverage (complication), snoops collecting evidence to uncover the crew’s true agenda (ticks on Suspicion clock), or even actual leverage they have unearthed to keep a character or cohort inline (blackmailed, extorted, seduced which can mean harm, heat, danger clocks, etc.).

Flashbacks can be a great way to deal with these preparations when they jump out to bite you. Otherwise, part of the score is discovering these preparations and neutralising them. This can be a good way to involve characters and cohorts with a diverse range of skills.


If the score ends with the mark highly suspicious, that leads to problems as the mark later realises they’ve been conned, usually -2 with factions hurt by the con. Ending with little or no suspicion might mean the mark never realises what actually happened, perhaps they feel they dodged a much worse situation and just want to forget the whole thing.

code black hack

Black Seven by Zero Point Information

This is a hack of Blades in the Dark, inspired by the RPG Black 7. In Black 7, you play black operatives infiltrating facilities and doing Bad Things. It’s a game laser-focused on stealth action, where you make rolls to get to mission targets and take conditions depending how much attention you draw (Noticed) or how much cover you find (Exposed).

The Code Black Hack changes how to set the position of action rolls on scores in Blades in the Dark. Position reflects the alert level of nearby hostiles and has rules for how the scoundrels’ actions worsen or improve their position.

This hack gives the GM more tools to reliably telegraph trouble, follow through on threats, and covey dangers inherent in what the scoundrels do. It’s entirely possible you could get the same gameplay using the standard rules, mainly by how the GM judges position and effect. In a way, that is all the Code Black Hack is: guidance for the GM on how to set the position and the effect level of actions in a consistent way.

It is meant for when the crew faces hostile resistance that they want to avoid. Black 7 is all about stealth plans, so this is the most direct port into Blades. Think breaking into the HQ of a gang of thugs, rather than mugging a couple in an alley. The standard rules already work well for smaller scale confrontations.

I want to explain the Code Black Hack for stealth plans today. I’m some way along rejigging these rules for other kinds of scores, particularly deception plans, but I’ll talk about them another time.

Stealth plans

When to use

These rules assume that most scores occur in a single defined area, which can be quite large; for example, a building, an underground lair, a prison, a city block, a ship. The idea is the crew’s position and conditions will carry across their activities during the score as they move around within the larger area, whether it’s between rooms, buildings or streets.

However, some scores involve linked plans. Where there is a significant shift in the area of the score, like ‘sneaking around a noble’s estate’ to ‘smuggling stolen goods across the city’, then a new engagement roll may be called for to see how well the next plan starts.

Stop tracking the crew’s position and Noticed and Exposed conditions if there are no longer any hostiles in the area, the crew leaves unpursued, or the score otherwise ends.

Action roll

The action roll is essentially the same. The major differences are that:

  • on a 5 or less, a scoundrel always gets the noticed condition and possibly further consequences
  • riskier positions reduce the effect of stealth actions and don’t allow certain consequences to be resisted
  • all scoundrels and their cohorts share the same position while they are in the same area.
Hostiles are not alerted that you’re nearby. You act on your terms.

Critical: You do it with increased effect.
6: You do it.
4/5: You hesitate. Avoid being noticed and try a different approach. Or else do it and you are noticed, and may also suffer lesser harm, a minor complication, have reduced effect.
1–3: You falter. Press on and you are noticed or avoid being noticed and try a different approach.

May resist being noticed, if not currently exposed.
Hostiles are alerted you’re about. You act under fire. You take a chance.

Critical: You do it with increased effect.
6: You do it.
4/5: You do it, but there’s a consequence: you are noticed. You may also suffer harm, a complication, have reduced effect.
1–3: Things go badly. You are noticed. You may also suffer harm, a complication, lose this opportunity.

Stealth attacks have reduced effect. Cannot resist being noticed.
Hostiles are closing in to attack you, alarms wailing. You go head-to-head. You’re in serious trouble.

Critical: You do it with increased effect.
6: You do it.
4/5: You do it, but there’s a consequence: you are noticed and hostiles attack. You may also suffer severe harm, a serious complication, have reduced effect.
1–3: It’s the worst outcome. You are noticed and hostiles attack. You may also suffer severe harm, a serious complication, lose this opportunity for action.

Stealth actions have reduced effect. Stealth attacks must be set up by another stealth action. Cannot resist being noticed.

Improving position

You can act to reduce Suspect to Hidden, but only if no characters or cohorts are Noticed or Exposed. You can only reduce Hunted to Suspect by eliminating all hunters present.

Consequences and Harm


If a character or cohort is Noticed, they’re still in or near cover but have drawn the attention of hostiles in the area. Usually, you become Noticed as a consequence of an action roll. You may also be Noticed if hostiles take the initiative and find you, or simply because they see or know where you are. You are Noticed if you act without regard to stealth—like sword fighting, shooting, exploding shit, ramming things, intimidating people—and the position also goes straight to Hunted.

While Noticed, you can’t stealth attack; for example, you can’t ambush, snipe from hiding, lay a trap, or trick a guard. Essentially, Noticed is a dominant factor and overshadows the situation, so you always have zero effect, no matter what effort or fine items you bring to bear.

At Hidden or Suspect, if you fail to remove Noticed promptly, the position worsens. At Hunted, if you fail to remove Noticed promptly, you may suffer severe harm from hostiles attacking you. This harm may be a consequence of a roll, including on the same roll when you get Noticed, or simply because hostiles take the initiative and see or know where you are. Hostiles prioritise attacking those Noticed and Exposed, then those just Noticed, and then those just Exposed. Hostiles can’t attack you if you’re neither Noticed nor Exposed.


If a character or cohort is Exposed, they haven’t been seen by hostiles, but they’re not in or near cover. You choose to become Exposed for increased effect. This increased effect remains while Exposed. You can’t resist or otherwise remove Noticed while Exposed, you must remove Exposed first.

Removing conditions

Noticed and Exposed are sticky conditions. Once you’ve gained one, you must act to remove it. Generally, that means making an action roll to evade or obfuscate. The player describes what the character does and what action rating they use, the GM sets the effect level. At Hidden, you may also resist being Noticed. At Suspect or Hunted, you may not resist: hostiles are too alert for you to easily recover from a mistake; instead, you may act to remove it. If you’re both Noticed and Exposed, you can’t resist or otherwise remove Noticed, you must remove Exposed first.

A cohort can’t resist consequences but may act to remove Noticed or Exposed. A character can use the teamwork move Protect to suffer being Noticed instead of a teammate or cohort. The protecting character may then roll to resist (if Hidden) or act to remove Noticed.


Harm can still be a minor consequence at Hidden and a consequence at Suspect. Not harm from hostiles, just harm following the fiction. For example, cutting through an electrified fence while Hidden is still dangerous. Because hostiles only attack you when you’re Hunted (and Noticed and/or Exposed), hostiles do severe harm (Level 3). Severe harm may also come from other sources, following the fiction. Harm may be resisted as normal, no matter the position.

The Score

Engagement roll

On 6, the starting position is Hidden.

On 4–5, the starting position is Hidden and each character and cohort starts either Noticed or Exposed, GM picks one for each.

On 1–3, the starting position is Suspect and each character and cohort starts either Noticed or Exposed, GM picks one for each.


Flashbacks are just another way to get to a mission target and you may still gain Noticed as a consequence. For example, you might have successfully bribed the guard, but he’s so oafish about his new wealth that he tips off other hostiles that something’s awry and they notice you (at the same time as getting you closer to a mission target).


Everyone who wants to benefit from a group action must roll. If the leader decides to boost the roll’s result, then everyone who rolled gains Exposed. If the roll results in a consequence of gaining Noticed, then everyone who rolls is Noticed. If the current position is Hidden, each character may resist that consequence individually.

A setup move can be used to temporarily improve position. If a character is currently Hunted and under attack by hostiles, a setup action could improve their position (and only their position) to Suspect for their next action, which means they’d avoid consequences from being attacked for that action.


Stop using these position rules and tracking Noticed and Exposed conditions if there are no longer any hostiles in the area, the crew leaves unpursued, or the score otherwise ends.

fathoming the unfathomable

Torchbearer, like many old-styled RPGs, leaves open why the player characters came together as an adventure party. Why do they keep trusting and depending on each other? Why do they risk their lives for each other?

By Jeremy Weate from Abuja, Nigeria – Swords of Qādisīyah, CC BY 2.0, Link

Obviously in games like Torchbearer, the metagame reason is if they don’t, they die. But I feel it’s important for play to have an in-fiction touchstone. Not just for verisimilitude; I think it helps us care about the characters and gives players more to grab on to in play.

I made the list below a few years back. My idea was the players first agree on a shared background, a history or purpose that glues them together through thick or thin. Then they build characters to fit and support that concept. Not as a straitjacket or a wish list of power-ups, more a solid foundation to fall back on should things get existential.

There’s no reason for the PCs to have identical motivations, but sharing some will make sense of why they work together at all.

I put these motivations into four groups for convenience: desperation, money, ambition, and duty. Maybe they survived a disaster together, are paid by the same patron, or hunt the same enemy. Or all of the above: when you’re desperate, you often need money, which leads to ambitious plans…

This is similar to Into the Dark’s Adventuring Parties in the Twilight Empire, but higher level, more abstract. In many ways, I prefer Into the Dark’s approach. It has the benefit of providing depth to the setting, gives the players natural antagonists in the setting, and seems a little more gameable. It also reminds me a little of Blades in the Dark crews. Something like it might be useful for the Abyss, the adventure region I’m developing for Torchbearer. I’ll add to the list.

Nevertheless, a benefit of my motivational approach is it’s also useful for GM characters and people who aren’t adventurers. For example, the Abyss is such a terrible place, why does anyone live there at all? What drove them there in the first place, what keeps them there still?

This list may inspire some answers.  


  • Disaster – fleeing to find refuge, e.g. village destroyed, ongoing war, famine,…
  • Escape – fleeing persecution: slaves, gladiators, prisoners, criminals, soldiers…
  • Coerced – bullied into furthering goals of or entertaining <blackmailer/faction/god>
  • Conscripted – hoping for a pardon, citizenship,…


  • Poverty – climb out of the gutter any way they can
  • Indebted – owe money, fealty or favour to person/organisation
  • Heist – working on a really big con/theft/deception
  • Mercenary – Patron pays for bounty hunt, field research, discovery, mapping,…


  • Enemy – Bring down the <something or one>, revenge, assassination
  • Rescue – loved one, prince, persecuted people
  • Raiding – love of pillage and raiding
  • Pilgrimage – holy journey
  • Knowledge – Uncover ancient mystery, dangerous secret, personal history, wonder


  • Diplomacy – foment strife, weaken powerful, incite unrest; or prevent such
  • Religious – recover holy relics/artefacts, rever divinity, save souls
  • Crusaders – Crusade against <distant threat or monster>
  • Vision – myths about fate, ancestor, lands, ascendance, downfall, demons
  • Family – this is your family’s place and all they have ever known

an intro

Roleplaying games: I love ’em. Playing, reading, dreaming, designing, whatever! They’re great. So I thought I’d share a little of that love. Here’s trying.

When I moved to a new city 10 years back, I founded my best and strongest friendships around a shared loved of roleplaying. The kind where you go to someone’s house, sit around a table and shout nonsense and brilliance at each other for a few hours. I played a range of games, with independent publishers being my bread and butter. I haven’t played D&D since I burned out on 2nd Edition in the nineties.

I usually play twice a week. I’m lucky that way. At the moment, that means a few games of Blades in the Dark (running Shadows and Assassins crews and playing in Hawkers) and playing in Legacy: Life among the Ruins. 

I’ve also had few stop-starts designing, but most of my energy for games has been playing and facilitating. I’ve certainly seen a few designs crumble in my hands, after many months of meanderings. But that comes with the territory.

At the moment, I’m designing a setting to string together a few Torchbearer games I’m planning to play next year. It’s inspired by the central location of the novel Boneshaker.

The Maw. The Abyss. Hell. All names of a hidden valley, smote by the gods, forever shrouded in a corrupting fog, a poisonous wound filled with unplundered treasures and terror, and a haven for those who hunger to flee the world. For a whole society of exiles, criminals, and refugees hide in its murky depths, in safe harbours carved out of the wasteland. Maybe small, overcrowded and filthy, but to you, torchbearer, they’re heaven.

Torchbearer campaign: Abyssal flames

I’ll put up more of my ideas for this, and other things, here. Till then.

new iruvian sword arts

One of my groups has secured training from an Iruvian Sword Master. The Hound has made a deal with a demon and become adopted as foreign-born I’Yalim. We decided to develop a fighting style to fit the functions and powers of an I’Yalim. We borrowed a little from the move Tiger’s Fury out of Johnstone Metzger’s excellent Iruvian playbook: Faris.

[Adept] Falconer’s Scimitar: You may wield a heavy, broad-bladed scimitar favoured by the I’Yalim to punish the wicked and execute justice. The long handle of the scimitar can be wielded with a wide two-handed grip to create a whirling blade in close, where a sword is expected to be useless. Or it can be wielded with a close two-handed grip to use its sweeping length, allowing you to attempt to plow through the field of battle to any location you can see.

[Master] The Sweeping Wind: Your sword attacks involve acrobatic leaps with powerful sweeping slashes. When you make an attack in this way, choose a beneficial extra effect (this effect occurs regardless of the outcome of your action): The target’s armour is ruined—the target’s weapon is ruined—the target is knocked sprawling—the target is forced into someone where their limbs and lives become entangled.

flipping baszo baz

I use two big clocks on a score all the time, where crew races to fill one before the other. Recently though, I tried splitting up the main score clock into a bunch of little clocks and it worked great. I based it on ideas from Rob Donoghue’s long con setup: http://walkingmind.evilhat.com/2017/07/27/the-long-con/

Here’s how it went down: The Assassin’s crew, the Butcher Birds, wanted to flip Baszo Baz. It worked great.

The Friend: Attention clock 4-segments
Baszo was bestie’s with Chance, the Slide, so that filled the first clock for free. That opened up the Interest clock.

The Hook: Interest clock 4-segments
The crew did a series of linked plans simultaneously to flipping Baszo: forging an alliance between the Lampblacks enemies, assassinating one of the street gang leaders and their gang, the second-in-command of the Lampblacks and their master of coin. That filled 3 of 4 on the interest clock. Baszo knows things are going to shit, Chance just needed to show him that things were going to get even worse… tonight. The crew are Bound in Darkness so they communicated intimate details from each linked plan, so Chance could drop enough to hook Baszo enough to shift the conversation from much-needed camaraderie to the bleakest of business.

All this info obviously roused Baszo’s suspicions. How much was Chance actually involved in fucking over the Lampblacks? 3 tock on the 8-segments on the Suspicion clock. Though they resisted that, bringing the consequence down to 1 tick.

Filling this clock, opened up the next clock.

The Option: Confidence clock 4-segments
Now the conversation shifted about how Chance can help Baszo. Baszo thought Chance was doing little more than daydreaming, that Chance couldn’t actually help Baszo get out of the deep shit he’s in.

So Chance laid out that he wasn’t just a street urchin, but a part of the notorious Butcher Birds, assassins connected to some strange and brutal accidents happened to well-connected Nobles in Brightstone. That filled 2-segments.

Chance knew of Baszo’s commitment to the Empty Vessel cult, so he pushed on, revealing that his crew have the favour of Fortuna, a Forgotten God, who grants them the silence of Bellweather (Crow’s Veil). With a little wrangling, that filled the Confidence clock.

That opened up the final score clock as well as the options trust clock (which could reduce the consequences of the suspicion clock.

The Decision: Ambition clock 4-segments
I shortened this clock to only 4-segments. That meant the crew were racing to fill 9-segments faster than 8-segments of suspicion. It worked out to be a good size. For a longer-term con, yeah this could have easily been 6 or 8 segments, like Rob’s article suggested.

This is basically about Baszo making a decision right now. To walk away from the Lampblacks right now.

Chance plied his ambitions to seek revenge against the Red Sashes, the opportunities that the Butcher Birds have to fill the power vacuum, and the possibility of being a secret hand that can swoop down on the Crows and become ward boss after all. Throwing in a little occult membership, and Baszo was ruthless as ever.

So Baszo flipped.

Trust clock 4-segments
Chance never ticked any of these. He ran out of stress and things got extremely tight. But we’re keeping this open, as the opportunity to settle the suspicions Baszo has and bring him totally on board with the Butcher Birds.

a sky less travelled

The lightning barriers only go so high. The lands and seas are full of terrors. So taking to the skies should be attractive. But assume people, ghosts, hulls and hollows don’t. Why?

Now it could be because they’re flightless. But I’d like to explore a different angle: what if they could fly but choose not to, or what if they could fly but something grounds them. Ideas?

undying: plague empires

Finished our first nightly play of Plague Empires. And what a bloodbath! So much fun.

By the end of the proceeding downtime, the Princeps and two Plebian NPCs dead and the only Patricians cursed to be Pariahs. The only remaining predators are:
1 NPC Patrician (boosted themselves up from Plebian as a plot)
3 PC Plebians, and
2 NPC Pariahs

I was wondering how to handle having so few predators left but a pile of grudges to handout. I’m considering introducing new NPCs after downtimeplay but before introducing the crisis for the nightly play. I wasn’t sure if that would work, particularly with how the grudges come from the plots in downtime play. Otherwise, then what happens if every NPC is already your enemy or nemesis and you need a new rival? Must a PC take it up?

Also, what about the status of the current crop of predators? There are so many positions vacant, this seems good time to upgrade the only Patrician to Princeps (they have no betters) and two of the PCs Plebians to Patricians (because they have favour with the would-be Princeps and cleared all the old guard).

Any suggestions or advice?

how to gm the puppetmaster playbook moves

In my Plague Empires games, one player is playing a Puppetmaster. After the revelation of the Princeps’s death, the Puppetmaster immediately sent his enterprise to do three things:
1. Write and send a wax tablet to Claudia, showing his support, maybe asking for info
2. Find out about the prey’s official records on the Princeps death
3. Offer services to Rufus, mainly as a ruse to understand what he is up to, but also to try to profit from whatever he’s up to.

I’m not sure how to proceed. I can see scenes or at least brief cutscenes. But I’m not sure how to use the liabilities and assets to guide these.

Do I use the assets and liabilities to judge how successful these actions are? Like should I consider if the action plays to the enterprise’s strengths (assets) and avoids its weaknesses (liabilities)?

How should I judge if he’s overcommitting his enterprise? Is trying to get his enterprise to do all three actions done at once overcommitting, or is that fine? Or, must the Puppetmaster micromanage his enterprise, so more than one thing at once is not possible? As the move says: “Managing your affairs is a job, as none of your proxies will ever be good enough to do it all for you.”

And if it is overcommitting, and I remove assets or add liabilities, what does that achieve? How should that effect play?

Also, I’m not sure if any of these (in particular 3.) could be considered investing in the enterprise.

Do you have any examples or actual play that spell out how to use this move?

More background
This Puppetmaster’s enterprise, a brothel and port-side emporium, is staffed by skilled or potentially capable slaves that he trains in letters and numbers to work as mercatores and the promise of providing further study and rewards keeps them loyal. The liabilities of his enterprise are competition from being at forefront of the changing markets of the port-side emporium and competing with other predators for trained and trainable prey (i.e. slaves not with the plague) and litigation from clients and customers and neighbours through Roman bureaucratic and cumbersome legal system.

satisfying a ghost’s need

I assume a Ghost PC can possess a living victim to consume its spirit energy even if they don’t have the Possess trait. Otherwise, I don’t see how they reduce drain.

On pages 214-5, the rules say to satisfy their need for life essence, a Ghost PC must “possess a living victim and consume their spirit energy (this may be a downtime activity)”. However, I noticed that a new Ghost PC may not choose Possess as a starting trait, which grants the ability to “attune to the ghost field in order to take control of a living body.”

So is the distinction here that any Ghost PC can possess a body to consume its spirit energy, but only those with the Possess trait can try to control that body?

Also, if I’m reading it right, possessing a body to consume its spirit energy seems to be the Ghost’s version of Indulging vice, except the Ghost version isn’t limited to downtime only. Is it intended that any Ghost can reduce their Drain mid-score, for example?

dimmer sisters

Loving the writing in the book, especially the flourishes and filigrees throughout that build the world and the mysteries, such as:
…the moon appears to multiply across the sky, in pairs and trios of sibling lights, as if reflected on the facets of a vast crystalline dome. It is not known what causes these pale, dimmer sisters to appear…
I laughed out reading that, so good.