Nov 062014

Editor’s Note: A few years ago, Marco contacted me through Reddit (I believe) because he had an idea for a new roleplaying game, Enter the Shadowside. He asked me a few questions about how to go about publishing something like this and as I’d had some limited experience myself in this arena, I answered as best I could. The game came out and was both beautiful and well received in the Indie RPG community! Fast forward to today, right now, this very second and Marco’s back at it, with a new edition currently on Kickstarter. Marco and I chatted briefly about it and without hesitation I offered him a guest post here on Troll. As he tends to do, he went above and beyond, writing this wonderful piece you have before you. Enjoy! 

I suspect that every designer’s first game is possibly a reaction to Dungeons & Dragons -and I mean this in the most complimentary of ways. There’s a certain charm to old-school DnD that makes many of us think “Well, I could do that too! And better!”. And some of us try.

Some of us, in fact, try over and over for more than a decade and through many iterations of games, and in 2012 when I published the first edition of Enter The Shadowside, I thought I had finally *got it*. The secret sauce, the formula. The system where number crunching was fair and accurate and easy… and many more things which tend to instantly vanish when you first lay eyes on the quirky monster my lab had conceived:

Meet 2012’s Jacob’s Ladder.

I’ll give you a minute to read through the instructions. Basically, you need a ruler -a physical plastic ruler, or any other similarly straight-edged object to place against the screen. First you need to add up all the things in favor of you passing the trait-check (call that Might), and then add up all the things against it (call that Difficulty). Then you use your ruler and connect the two, from left to right, Might to Difficulty. Wherever your ruler crosses the middle diagonal line tells you how much you need to roll on a d20 to succeed. Try it, it’s fun. At least sometimes.And it has fun properties. As you can see there are multiple scales on both sides -this is because the ladder deals with *proportionality*. In other words, matching a Might of 5 versus a Difficulty of 10 gives you the same odds (the exact same odds) as matching a Might of 50 vs 100, or 1 bajillion vs 2 bajillions (roll 16 or better on the d20, if you’re curious). The fact that you can pack anything you want into either helping you win (Might) or lose (Difficulty) means that you can simply throw bonuses and penalties with wild abandon. Items, skills? Sure. Scene bonuses? Bennies? Throw them all right in. Toss all your numbers into the Mr. Fusion machine, grab your ruler, and get instant proportional odds on a d20. Nifty, right?Nope. Not at all, and this took me a while to realize.You see, I really do think Jacob’s Ladder is the best number cruncher ever. It’s pin-point accurate, it scales forever, it near-always allows the possibility of failure and almost-never guarantees success, it accounts for all possible circumstances, etc etc. It’s like the best horse-saddle ever built… for an era where nobody rides horses anymore.

From the beginning I wanted Enter The Shadowside to focus on the story, first and foremost. In my philosophy, rules and mechanics are needed simply to focus multiple possible visions into one single vision for the whole table. I may think I hit the orc, and he may think I miss, but then we roll some dice within the framework of some agreed upon rules and the quantum possibilities congeal to a single outcome and we move on together from there. Rules are good. But do we really need to interrupt the flow of the story to look up Traits in one or two character sheets, and do we really need to do some math in our heads adding up numbers for skills and items and circumstantial bonuses and penalties, and pull arbitrary difficulty out of thin air in 30-range and then slide a ruler over a chart in the table, then roll dice, then see if the dice are bigger than the number, and count by how much are they bigger, or by how much are they shorter, and then translate that number into a narrative outcome, sometimes subtracting points from Traits or “HP” for “Damage”, which we’ll have to take into account the next action? Specifically for the first version of EtS, did we really need 14 different Traits, where 7 of them were the average of the other 7, and did we really need to have points in Skills too, and did we really need to look up the different rules of each Skill, some of which required accounting over multiple turns? All we care about is the story, right? So why all this noise? Well, you may say, because the story needs fairness, too. Wins and losses matter because they make the story different, so we owe to ourselves some due diligence. I agree. But is there an easier way?

That’s what was on my mind when I started DESTINY.

Imagine there are four decks of cards on the table, “Combat”, “Magic”, “Influence” and literally “Everything Else” -not kidding about that last one.

If you are playing, say, a chatty socialite with an interest in the occult (EtS is all about the occult, if you didn’t know), your stats could be-

Combat: Weak
Magic: Average
Influence: Strong
Everything Else: Average

-for instance. This means you get 3 cards from the Influence deck, because that’s your strenght, but just 1 card from the Combat deck, because that’s your weakness -and the other two traits, the average ones, get 2 cards each. So far so good?

Okay. Now what’s in those cards?

On one side, nothing; just a pretty picture for each trait -swords for Combat, crowns for Influence, that sort of thing. Like in poker, it adds to the fun if you keep your cards secret.


But printed on the other side there is a message in big giant words. This message can be one of the following possible six:

No, And
No, But
Yes, But
Yes, And


That’s it. So if you’re trying to fast-talk your way past a nightclub bouncer, eventually the StoryHost will ask you “can you do it?” -and that’s your cue: you look down at your three Influence cards in your hands. Is either one of those a “Yes”? Say, for instance, that one card is a “Yes, But”. You lay it on the table. The StoryHost sees it -and he knows that you succeeded -but there’s a “but”. He goes: “Okay. The bouncer nods his head when you say you’re friends with the owner -you look the type. He motions for you to get in, but right as you go past him you see him pull out his cellphone -he’s gonna double check with the boss.”. That’s it. Done. You got your “Yes”, you got your “But”, and there was no math involved. Your card is spent; it goes back to the deck and now you only have two left.

Let’s stop here for a minute. What if you didn’t really care that much about convicing that bouncer? If you can afford to lose then you’re better off turning in a “No” card, if you have one, because, well, what if later on that “No” is the only card you have left and you’re in a much tighter spot? Better to fail voluntarily now, better to manage the timing of your failures, than to blindly trust luck, right? And realize this: you *will* fail. A whole fourth of the deck is composed of “No”s. Can you weave failure into your story? Because the point of Enter the Shadowside is not to *win*; it’s to tell a story.

Now what if the task isn’t about convincing a bouncer to let you in, but something much trickier? What if it’s about explaining to the very nervous young cop who has *just* climbed down his police car and is already unholstering his gun that no, you actually *didn’t* kill that guy lying face down in a pool of blood by your feet, oh, and that bloody knife you’re holding is something you *just* picked up too, because you were searching for clues? Or what if the task is super easy, what if all you have to do is act natural in the middle of a crowd of rabid cultist while their leader whips them into a frenzy from the pulpit?

Well, each deck, at a minimum, has 12 cards in it. This means there are 4 “sets” of answers in each deck: “No, And”, “No” and “No, But” are the first set, but the other three are different *levels* of “Yes, And”, “Yes” and “Yes, But”. We can make these three sets match three difficulties: “Easy”, “Not-So-Easy” and “Hard”. So now when the SH asks you whether you can knock-out the burly body-guard of Don Camilo with a rusty shovel, he can also tell you that doing so will be Hard. Or Easy, depending on the shovel? And then you answer with a “Yes” from the specified difficulty -if you have one! Don’t have one? Then it’s a “No”, sorry. Deal with failure, and make the story grow out of it.

Of course, some tasks will be Harder than Hard, and a good StoryHost will make sure to break them up into multiple stages. Equally important, a StoryHost will only take cards when they actually matter: if a player is trying to get trait-checked on something that is ultimately inconsequential it probably means he’s just trying to burn a “No” out of his hands. Grant him an automatic pass instead and move on, but don’t take his card.

What about Skills? What about Items?

Well, think about them in real life. How hard would it be for you to recite lines from Macbeth? Well, if you’re a professional actor (that’s a Skill!) it would be Easier. Or maybe driving a nail through a piece of wood. Got a hammer? (that’s an Item!) then it’s Easy. Don’t have one? Then it’s Hard. Skills and Items merely lower the Difficulty if the StoryHost thinks it makes sense for them to do so -and they don’t always make sense. Say you’re trying to answer a very difficult Biochemistry test question. Would it help if someone plopped the Big Musty Tome of Biochemistry on your desk? Well, it depends: if you’re a biochemist, then yes, maybe that’s just the reference you were looking for: it *does* help and Difficulty goes down. But if you’re not a biochemist and the book reads like mumbo-jumbo to you, then no, it doesn’t help and it doesn’t lower the Difficulty at all -some Items only help if you have the right Skill to use them. Likewise, some Skills help more than others, and trade off usefulness for frequency. Say, First Aid feels like it could be useful pretty often, but how much, really? Maybe turn a Not-So-Easy bandage job into Easy now and then? But Neurosurgery? Friend, if what you *actually need* is neurosurgery, then having a Neurosurgey skill is the difference between Harder-than-Hard and Easy -just hopefully you won’t need something that specific very often.

And so on. I could go on and on with examples like this but what I hope you appreciate is that we haven’t had to consult a single table so far. Not a single arithmetic operation, not a single chart -nor ruler- to be found. Just language.

How good are you at Influencing people? I’m Strong.
Can you convince the bouncer to let you in? Yes, but.
How hard is it to pick this lock? Hard. But do you have a bunch of tools and have you been picking locks since you were 14? Then it’s Easy.

No numbers. And no dice -you hold your future successes and failures literally in your hands; hence DESTINY.

It’s 2014, and once again I feel like I finally *got it*. I was wrong once. Stay tuned and see what I come up with for 2016. But for now, if you’re interested in learning more, please support our Kickstarter.


May all your journeys be awesome.

Marco Leon

About Ben

I'm a geek. A nerd, a dweeb, whatever. Yes I owned garb, yes I still own medieval weaponry. And yeah, I could kick your butt in Mechwarrior the CCG. I love video games, role playing games, tactical board games and all forms of speculative fiction. I will never berate someone for wanting to be a Jedi and take everything Gary Gygax ever wrote as gospel. Well, all of this but that last bit.

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