Actual Play: a|state (part 7 of 9)

This is a big one, perhaps the pivot of our entire campaign. Enjoy!

If you’ve just run into this one somehow, this is an edited version of my actual play reports of a|state I wrote for our Slack while I was working on my deep dive of the game. Terrific campaign, learned a lot about not only a|state itself but FitD games and long-form play as well. The series started here.

Mission: Go Boom

Stumbled into maybe an interesting play phenomenon, but I don’t know how to test my premise. Settle in for a bit of a|state storytime.

C/W suicide, politics: dramatic, not personal!

I’m gonna try to synopsize as much as possible here. Although we’re only playing 2.5-3 hour sessions we cover a lot of ground these days. Some of this is down to how FitD games structure their drama around clocks, and our growing mastery over how best to use them. But some is because we’re ramping up to tackling the underlying issue of the Danger Clock.

Let’s Talk About Clocks (Baby)

In a|state, there’s a big campaign-scale clock called the Danger Clock. It’s tied to some underlying thing threatening your corner (neighborhood), and it ticks over via rolls you make. You make those rolls relative to the Attention the corner has received. Attention is how much other factions care about your ‘hood. Ours is up to 2 now, and the Danger Clock is accelerating.

In our game, the Danger Clock’s underlying cause is this: their neighborhood has been singled out for takeover by the Three Canals Authority (TCA), this sprawling bureaucratic state that dominates The City. While the game sort of implies a UK colo(u)r to the class struggle, I’ve remapped this in my own mind to more of an Israel-Palestine thing. The corner is Palestine: actively oppressed, striving for independence, regular incursions by an outside force into their affairs. It also adds some religious frisson to everything, which is of course tangled up with the class focus the game comes with by default.

The reason the TCA wants to take over the corner, and what’s really driving the Danger Clock, is that it wants to sell out the corner to the highest bidders among the Trusts (the cyberpunk-ish megacorps) as testing grounds for their products. The big Trust that’s always looming over our game is General Machinery. GM specializes in dingins (computer doodads) and is (probably, it is rumored) run by a bank of intelligent dingins.

As long as TCA continues to try and turn the corner into GM’s testing grounds (for money and influence), the Danger Clock will keep ticking over.

The Plan

Okay. So. They’ve finally more or less figured out what’s driving the Danger Clock. This is the key to the a|state campaign and is a great huge yawning Fruitful Void thing. The book never says how you stop the Danger Clock. This is good. But it also means you need to assertively decide what it looks like on your own. Everyone must be on the same page, fictionally. It reminds me a lot of how the table decides whether a moment is Deeds-worthy in Burning Wheel. You know it when you see it.

Last downtime, they poured a lot of time and resources into research about what the heck General Machinery is up to. They started a community project (just like a personal project in Blades in the Dark but anyone can work on it) to nail down exactly what the GM dingins sprouting up all over the corner are doing, who they’re communicating with, etc. And they did: the dingins are surveillance devices, capturing the identity of everyone in the corner as future test subjects. And making sure none of these test subjects ever, ever wander into TCA-controlled City.

But in the course of the downtime, our ghostfighter, a retired organized crime enforcer, blew way past her Vice. The player chose to put her on hold for a session (or maybe more!) and stat up our dinginsmith, the NPC they’ve been working with on this GM investigation. That’s great! The player was excited to try some new stuff.

After all their investigations, I clarify to them “yup, you’re on the right track on your Danger Clock.” And the main mission they’re looking at is the impending final meeting between Mire End leadership and this absolute freakshow of a TCA representative who’s been brokering the deal with GM. This is the last tick of their 8-clock the faction has been running all campaign: take over Mire End.

They want to stop that meeting. It might not stop the Danger Clock! But it’s a good way toward fictionally positioning the players such that TCA either won’t want the corner, or Mire End’s leadership won’t be willing to sell themselves out for a buck and a steady supply of nutrient slurry.

So Much Personal Business

I’ve been expanding on the scope and meaning of downtime all campaign long — readers might remember I’ve been referring to it as “personal business” and mission as “corner business,” right? And so, so much happens during downtimes.

In addition to our ghostfighter enforcer ace-ing herself out, our sneakthief, former child soldier and product of GM’s mikefighter (child fighter pilot) program himself has been struggling mightily with his backing faction.

In a|state, everyone has a backing faction, some group that wants you to succeed but also wants you to do what they want. It’s terrific, really ties folks into the setting while making the ground ripe for betrayal. In the case of our sneakthief, his backing faction is the Unknowns. They’re masked vigilantes who are the overzealous tip of the Mire End independence spear. They’re Hamas, basically, willing to do damned near anything but also threaten to escalate tensions. They make independence possible but also make it impossible, because their main strategy is provoking the TCA. 

(Quick note here that I have not done a deep dive into real-world politics on this. It’s a rough placeholder in my mind. Everything going forward is not a reflection of how I think the Israel-Palestine conflict actually works. It’s a game.)

The Enemy of my Enemy is Still an Enemy

Okay so these Unknowns. They’re members of the community but they’re always masked when they’re on Unknown business. The sneakthief’s handler calls himself Sand, and will appear out of the shadows wearing a baby mask.

Meanwhile another of the characters’ backing factions is the Mire End Tribune, a muckraking local rag run by eager citizen-journalists. And as a result of a previous session’s use of the Tribune’s resources, the tradeoff is that their photographers captured the sneakthief murdering a cop on film. They use that kompromat as leverage for the sneakthief to reveal the identity of Sand, the last of the Unknowns’ identities they’re about to reveal in their paper.

Poor guy is caught between a rock and a hard place. He sees just how untenable the Unknowns’ approach is, sees that they’re gonna end up giving TCA no choice but to crack down. But Sand loves this guy! Praises him for being a good soldier, promises he’s going to be a hero of the resistance.

The sneakthief eventually confronts Sand and tears his mask off (whole big leadup I’m leaving out of this). Discovers Sand is his very own vice purveyor: Basil, the tailor. (His vice is nice clothes, the player is new to this kind of game and didn’t know how far to push it and went safe.) Well, now that he understands the tailor is a leader of the Unknowns, he starts making more sense of the guy’s shop. That’s not a dress mannequin, that’s a target. Those aren’t heavy jackets, that’s armor. That’s not a fancy vest…it’s a suicide vest.

Go Time

Now it’s mission time. The sneakthief is still deciding whether to sell out Sand’s identity to the Tribune in return for those compromising photos. His downtime has left him with 5/8 stress for crying out loud! The guy is a mess, right when they’re going to confront the parties gathered to negotiate the final handover of Mire End to the TCA.

To designer Morgan Davies’ credit, his approach templates are really well designed. When we talked about the mission — “stop the takeover of Mire End” — we looked at all the approaches. Really only Broker and Confront make sense, and brokering means settling on terms of the takeover, really, not stopping it. So Confront it is.

The templates have so many good ideas, things to think about, etc. In this case, the suggested stages of a confrontation are really smart and applicable: break through security, secure the perimeter so you can conduct the confrontation uninterrupted, and do the actual confrontation.

Given the stakes at play and the fact everyone is a higher tier, I make that 3 separate clocks.

Steps 1 and 2

Getting through security is pretty easy and great. Our lostfinder, who has become a pillar of the legitimate (not Unknown) resistance, uses the pirate radio station they founded a few sessions back to start a fuckin’ riot outside the meeting. Total chaos! That allows the sneakthief to Sneak them all through the crowd and inside the midrise where the meeting is taking place. Great, first clock done.

Securing the perimeter also goes fairly well. There’s one stairwell up and out of the (perpetually flooded) ground floor up to the meeting space. They get above those stairs and destroy it. But it’s a mixed success and the “secure” clock is incomplete, 5 out of 6. And they’ve just ticked over “the cops intercede” clock I had started sooner. And now they’re in the meeting space when the cops intercede.

The meeting is not what they expected. Not only are the Mire End cooperative authority NPCs present (a council of 5, including Basil the Tailor), as well as the TCA weirdo lady, but also representatives of the Third Syndicate … and a lone, small dingin sitting at a table. The General Machinery representative.

(I do love how their day-to-day lives are so grimy and steampunky, while these glossy cyberpunk touches are juuuust out of reach.)

But now that they’ve made a ruckus, and the cops are present, they’re still trying to conduct the Confront.

There Is No Step 3

This is tricky because the players also understand they’ve not yet secured the perimeter. Now it’s a race to fill out the 8-clock — “convince the TCA to fucking leave” — before they get taken down by the cops and the Third Syndicate mooks.

The Lostfinder takes a swing, puts everything he’s got into his roll: desperate, greater effect, Pushes it to extreme for the 4 ticks. His plea will get them halfway there…but it comes with many, many complications.

Then the sneakthief steps up. Player asks for a flashback.

He flashes back to his meeting with Sand/Basil. He returns to that vest. He’s … wearing that vest. Hasn’t told anyone.

He’s going to be the good soldier one last time.

Now this is the first of two interesting play things I want to talk about.

C/w Starts Here

The first one is the vest. He’s threatening to blow the suicide vest unless they stop and listen to the lostfinder make his case. I basically reverse-engineer Go Aggro here. I tell the player: if you miss this roll, if you roll a miss and not just a mixed success, I think that means you pulled the trigger. What do you think of that?

I check in a bunch with him on this. Make sure the stakes are eminently clear. There’s a real chance this thing is gonna happen.

He’s into it.

He’s also almost out of stress, 6/8 after that flashback. He’s Commanding, which is 1 die. The lostfinder spends his next-to-last stress to assist with another die — he’s crazy, he’ll do it! And the sneakthief himself spends his last 2 stress to buy a third die. It’s desperate of course. That’s it, 3 dice.

Rolls 1. 1. 1.


This is a huge tilt, and it will completely transform our campaign.


The TCA weirdo survives and she’s hustled out by her guards. Most of the Mire End leadership is dead. I give the sneakthief’s player an opportunity to resist, but he declines. He’s ready. This is the end for him. I give the other troublemakers a chance to resist, and they do. Everyone’s left with level 3 injuries (resisted down from 4s, ie dead). Huge changeup.

But this is the second thing: my player, besides riding high on the opportunity for a truly glorious (?!) end, was also intrigued by the other player’s starting up a new character. He’s actually quite excited to start another troublemaker.

What this got me thinking about is the conversation about playing more than one character, and whether that’s “good” or “bad.”

Character Monogamy

In Band of Blades my players didn’t cotton to it. It’s the default setup and you play that way from the very first session. Missions never include everyone’s main; you’re probably playing new recruits more often than not. And nobody “owns” them.

Reminds me of Circle of Hands that way too, another game my players didn’t cotton to. They like character ownership.

But now that we’ve unsealed the possibility of having more than one character in a|state, folks are really taking to it. They’re all “their” character, which is different than CoH and BoB recruits. And it’s a way to inject some fun novelty after what’s been months and months of play with the same crew.

Final Takeaways and a Technical Breakdown

Dunno that I have a final takeaway here. But I very much like that it’s now “okay” that my players have some options, and that they like having those options.

This was, by far, the most Clock intensive mission I’ve ever run. Lemme lay it all out.

As part of mission planning we agree that the three stages suggested in the template are good and necessary:

  • Break through security (6)
  • Secure the perimeter (6)
  • Confront these disloyal motherfuckers (yes, this is how I worded the clock) (8)

Oh, then during the sneak through the riot, the dinginsmith takes Grief (devil’s bargain), which is to tick another standing clock:

  • General Machinery finds you (1/4) — clock was already in play as a consequence of her breaking into their network and finding out their plans

During the perimeter security step, the sneakthief takes more Grief, another clock:

  • The cops arrive (4)

I threw a lot of clocks on the table because I knew I’d need to be able to bleed off a lot of misses/mixed successes. And I wanted things to change in BIG ways. And the foreshadowing of placing a clock is powerful and legitimate in a way that dropping big non-resistible consequences on misses/mixed rolls feels.

When they failed to complete the Secure clock, I added two more clocks for two high-tier NPCs who go to close in on our troublemakers and remove them from the meeting:

  • The Jannisary (street name of the Third Syndicate mook) (6)
  • The police chief (present at the negotiations) (6)

Seven clocks! Absurd.

The State of Play

Given the state of play, the clocks, etc etc on the table when the bomb went off, here’s how everything stands. But I haven’t run this session’s Trouble Engine yet so I might maybe make some changes.

The Lostfinder resisted death, and is now wounded but in lockup with the local pseudo-cops (the Blackcoats). The Blackcoats are divided between loyalty to a notional Mire End cooperative authority (most of whom are now dead) and the Unknowns, due to a greater reward earned when the Lostfinder rallied that riot.

The Dinginsmith’s “GM found you” clock ticked over and she’s just gone when it’s over. General Machinery sent…something…in to grab her. We’ll decide which character he plays next sesh, probably back to the ghostfighter.

The Sneakthief of course is dead.

The TCA broker, Miss Tess, is probably an alien. They finally pieced together that she looks and acts exactly like the weird alien invaders they saw in the time-looped lost place they visited a couple sessions ago. They observed a segment of time during the Bombardment when the aliens activated some kind of doomsday device (which led to the creation of the City) and … apparently stranded a bunch of them in this weird prison of their own making. But she survived because alien.

The sole survivor of the Mire End cooperative authority survived because actually he’s a resurrected dead person already, a product of the Shifted tree they went looking for. But the cooperative authority is no more. And the chief of the Blackcoats is no more. So probably whatever ambitious lieutenant wants to take the remainder of the Blackcoats is now the de facto government. Ish. Huge power vacuum.

The TCA will of course be striking back shortly. Nobody tries to kill their alien representative from out of time and space!

Another decision I have to make:

Who might get buried under a branch from the Shifted tree?

<–Part 6 | Part 8–>

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