Deep Dive: A|STATE

We’re deep into a campaign of Handiwork Games’ second edition of a|state here with no signs of stopping. I was just about to leave Forged in the Dark games behind but a|state convinced me to stick around awhile long. Let’s dig into how a|state redeemed FitD for me.

What is a|state?

Way, way back in the earliest years of the modern indie movement, Malcolm Craig released his first edition of a|state. This was 2004, well before my time in Deep Indiedom. Craig’s two later games – Cold City and Hot War — were harder hitting and more indie-indie, dark work, grounded in history, critically acclaimed. The primary innovation of Cold City, a game about hunting WW2-era monsters lurking beneath cold war era Berlin, was a mechanism called trust: a resource just begging to be abused and broken by your fellow monster-hunting spy guys.

Jump ahead to 2022 and the second edition of a|state. Handiwork Games (mostly done by NZ based designer Morgan Davie of Taleturn, who has written several small games but especially the very cute Paranormal Wellington, which I picked up recently) completely rewrote the game and big swaths of the setting as a Forged in the Dark game. The bones of the game are straight out of Blades in the Dark, but they’ve added a ton of innovations, both small and large. I think a|state is the best FitD game on the market now.

So what is a|state even about? Hard to say! It’s a fully realized setting with few direct fictional references. A creation from another era.

It might not be the Brazil RPG but I definitely read the entire rulebook with their voices in my ears.

First off, the name means nothing at all as far as I can tell. The reading/viewing list at the back refers to movies like Brazil and Dark City, and those vibes are definitely present but also you couldn’t really play Brazil straight out of the book. Without going too far down the “what even is genre” rabbit hole, those references are for vibe reasons only.

The physical production of the book and its art (mostly by Paul Bourne, going a long way toward creating the vibes whole cloth) is breathtaking, truly. I am amazed that these ostensibly “indie” games are coming out so beautifully produced these days. Feels like indie “won” in the ways that matter (ie money is how you keep score under capitalism). But then you also look at the art, and flipping through the book you’ll see flooded ruins, then mechs, then towers built out of stacked shipping containers like out of Ready Player One, then an ultra-tech high rise, and so on and so forth. Is it futuristic? Is it steampunk?

The setting of the game is simply The City. It’s a sprawling urban nightmare the characters can literally never escape. It has no history, no future, and no context. What’s outside The City? Doesn’t matter, you’ll never get there. The book offers some theories but no answers. It’s also weirdly flat and monocultural, which I’ll get into later. There’s a lot of very well done, directly useful canonical setting material for various notable bits of The City, some of the best I’ve ever seen in a FitD game, but the real point of the endless city concept is that you can drop literally any sort of urban nightmare into place: cyberpunk skyscraper districts, favelas, Stalingrad-like apocalyptic ruins, and so on. Imagine if Charles Dickens, John Updike and the Lonely Planet guidebooks all described William Gibson’s Sprawl at once.

Within The City, your characters are all troublemakers living together in a neighborhood called a Corner. The Corner serves a similar organizing purpose to gangs in Blades in the Dark or the ship in Scum & Villainy. You buy upgrades to your Corner, you seize and protect claims all around your Corner that provide mechanical benefits, all your starting NPCs are centered on your Corner. Neat twist: you can use one of several (three I think?) little maps to doodle on locations of claims, NPCs, landmarks and so on.

One of the neighborhood maps — we used this one.

Together, the troublemakers are joined together in a group called an alliance, committed to protecting and bettering their Corner in an absolutely awful city filled with the most extreme economic inequality you can imagine. The alliance doesn’t have any sort of baked-in structure other than a shared list of contacts. You don’t upgrade it and it doesn’t shape play. That’s all done during the extensive DIY portion of the game’s setup.

The game is about this alliance of troublemakers doing their level best to protect and improve their Corner. Ultimately the goal of an a|state campaign – and it does have a goal with an ending – is for the characters to determine the source of a countdown called the Danger Clock and dealing with it. That might happen in the length of an “indie campaign,” which to my mind is in the 8-10 session range. For post-pandemic, age and family logistical reasons my sessions are down to around 2 hours a week, so I suspect we’ll be more in the 15-20 session range before the troublemakers have figured out the source of their Danger Clock and resolved it.

Gameplay has been quite small-stakes so far: some tiny gangs (we’re talking like 5 angry people with knives and grudges) fighting with each other, quelling a riot, solving a murder, carrying out small tasks for shadowy factions with an interest in the alliance’s success. While on the surface, the action feels similar to gangs doing crime things in Blades in the Dark, the game’s holding environment makes this a completely different experience. The troublemakers are invested in their community, not their own alliance. And there are enough external pressures on the alliance that the PCs may find themselves at odds with one another. But never with their Corner.

Notable Divergences

To be clear: Handiwork did not just copy and paste the Blades in the Dark SRD and drop in jaw-dropping art. The game is packed with lots of tweaks as well as whole new systems I hope show up in other FitD games.

DIY Setup Top to Bottom

This is the biggest divergence and least-FitD-like aspect of a|state: there is no baked-in campaign framework.

There are no premade gangs to join. No ships. No houses or clans or anything else. There is only the Corner. And you have to build out every aspect of your Corner from scratch.

There are lots of useful tools and tables to make this happen, but it was a surprise. Most FitD games give you premade stuff to jump in on. Here, you start with a blank street map (there are three variations) onto which you will note various locations, NPCs, and so on. You pick a couple benefits from the neighborhood for your characters. You even create a list of Claims! I confess the Claims creation process looked intimidating but turned out to be pretty easy. The whole a|state Claims system is a nice addition in any case, since the GM can add more Claims as they come up in the fiction. Does a nice job of making The City feel expansive, in contrast to the claustrophobia of Doskvol.

You also work out your own bespoke list of Factions. The game’s setting has a number of canonical Factions, but they’ll never all appear in your game. Rather, a small number of them will bubble to the surface during a series of questions during Corner creation. And then you’ll also add a list of additional local-to-the-Corner Factions: mini governments, law enforcement, gangs, media and so forth. Again, it seems intimidating given how we’re used to FitD games working. In the end, though, our setup took about three hours at the table.

The character playbooks are more conventionally complete, but even they have a DIY component. Each of the seven playbooks contain three variations: the one the book is known as (lostfinder, ghostfighter, sneakthief, dinginsmith…they’re all very setting-specific), as well as three alternatives (lostfinders are just one kind of Wayfarer, which also includes nomads, antiquities hunters and foot couriers). They’re not dramatically different, just different starting action ratings, equipment and fictional positioning. It all adds up, though, and 28 variations is a nice spread.

The campaign kicks off when the GM chooses a starting situation from a list. The situations are good and colorful, and feature a list of questions for the players to establish the fiction, and then a bit of thinking for the GM. Not a lot! You can totally start playing the same session you build out the Corner. We kicked our game off with the “factions at war” starting situation, pitting two nasty little gangs from our r-map against each other. There are three other situations, all good and different origin stories on how an alliance of troublemakers might come together.

Downtime Gets Good

The big divergence, to my mind, directly addresses the “there’s no room to roleplay during downtime” complaint folks have made about Blades in the Dark. Whether that’s objectively true or just an overly strict reading of BitD’s game text is debatable. But in any case, a|state makes it explicit: Mission is for Corner business and Downtime is for personal business. It’s terrific, and solves a lot of problems I’ve had with other FitD games.

The expanded Downtime concept orbits around a whole big campaign management thing the game introduces called the Trouble Engine. It’s really just a long checklist, with some rolls and some tables to provide random-as-you-want inputs into the GM’s prep:

  • You check for escalations of current Troubles (capital T, it’s a term of art indicating an ongoing problem-causing thing that may or may not have a clock attached) based on how many Troubles are currently weighing on the Corner. Every kind of Trouble has a list of suggested escalations (into different, worse Troubles). Nice!
  • Then you roll to add ticks to the Danger Clock based on current Attention, a track based on noise (ie heat) and whether the Mission exceeded a certain threshold of it.
  • Then you see how the Factions, broadly, may have felt about the noise you just generated and how that will affect new Troubles that bubble up in the Corner all on their own, via a Corner stat called Hope.
  • Then you go through and tick clocks attached to projects Factions are currently pursuing, but only if you want, if the fiction requires it, etc.
  • The best part is that you might end up with an Incursion, which is a Mission inside Downtime the troublemakers can’t plan for and can’t avoid. Fallout from incursions is almost always some flavor of bad, and dealing with them is very much about putting out fires more than proactively pursuing advantages.

There’s other stuff besides that but I’ve done the process four times now and it’s about a half-hour of lonely fun. And it really is fun. The Trouble Engine gives a mix of outside random inputs and GM-authored through-lines. The situation feels real and organic. Top marks, and I hope other games look at doing something similar for their own enhanced campaign management systems.

You can even choose to Lay Low and take another downtime…but that means running the Trouble Engine again and that’s a big ask. Needs must when the devil drives. My home group has only done it once, and they really had to, and it sucked for them.

The net result of the Trouble Engine, mixed with more traditional “two downtime actions and then you can pay for more” choices, personal Hidden Agenda clocks, the ability to scrape up more coin for more actions, and just a generally more dynamic set of things to engage with, and Downtime doesn’t feel perfunctory at all now. It’s the heart of our game.

Missions Get Better

The Mission phase feels more expansive in a|state as well. Our first couple were pretty standard run/gun/sneak type activities and felt like they could have been happening in a Blades in the Dark game. But a|state gives players the option to let their guard down. It’s quite simple and I think I will strap it onto any other FitD game in the future: if the fiction allows the characters a chance to relax, they can remove 1 point of Stress. In return, they roll their worst attribute. On a 1-3, they attract a little trouble: a new difficult situation, a tick on a clock, lose cash or an item. All small-stakes stuff, nothing that would actually cost more stress. And if there’s no real trouble brewing in the Mission – weird but I’m not your dad, go ahead and run chill Missions – then the GM doesn’t even need to ask for the roll. It’s a nice touch, especially combined with another neat innovation of the game: Trust.

Trust feels very Malcolm Craig: it was a resource that incentivized back-stabbing in Cold City, and it reappears here in a|state as a less cutthroat – but not totally harmless – version. Any two characters can agree, at the start of the campaign, that they trust each other. At that point, each half of the pair can use that Trust once per “cycle of play” (Mission or Downtime) to do assist and “lead a group” actions without risking stress, or share stress with the other party, or access their friend or contact as if they were their own, or even redirect a consequence of an Action roll to them. They can’t stop you, and that’s where the backstabbing comes in. You can even pressure the other party to do something, and this is very clever: you say how much stress you’re spending to pressure them, and if they refuse you both take that stress. Trust can be broken and reforged.

Trust ties nicely into another innovation of the game: your backing faction. Every character is backed by a faction in the game. They’ll provide help, resources, bonus dice, even soak a consequence from an Action roll on your behalf. But every time they help you, that’s a die you have to roll at the end of the phase. On a 4-5 they’ll send you on an errand and on a 6 you’ll get a Hidden Agenda, a secret just-for-you mission with a clock attached. Each downtime you don’t work on your Hidden Agenda, that clock ticks. If you just don’t do it at all? Consequences! So of course it’s good fun to hand out Hidden Agendas that require the characters betray each other, which brings us all the way home to that nifty Trust mechanism. Good stuff. Hope you’re all friends at your table.

There’s a lot of explicit spelling-out of how to build a Mission via templates for each approach. There are some clever ideas buried in each template about, say, what kinds of twists might occur during a Broker, or what clock to set on a Confront. I don’t follow them exhaustively but I always give the templates a quick glance. There’s an implication that you can do quite a bit of GM prep for a Mission, but I’ve found they run perfectly fine off the hip and maybe incorporating some of the template questions.

Other QOL Improvements

My favorite clarification/explanation in a|state, which unfortunately won’t readily apply across all FitD games everywhere, is how Tier/Quality/Magnitude/Scale differences work in the game. Tier is probably the most varied in how each FitD game treats it: what Tier means, and the implications of small and large differences. But check this out, it’s a terrific collection of ideas of how to apply those differences:

My favorite bit of formal text in the game. It’s not a “use the whole row” thing, it’s “think about which parts of the row applies.”

Another neat twist on Tier is Interest. Interest is the Faction’s current Tier relative to how invested they are in the Corner’s activities. So one of the huge megacorps might be Tier VI, but their Interest is only 1, so functionally they’re just Tier I relative to the Corner. After missions play out, and you’re reviewing each Faction’s response to your activities, you might change either their status (the allied/war relationship with the alliance) or their Interest. I love this extra bit of detail so much.

One last little twist that stood out for me: Guns make everything worse. The City is filled, filled with guns. Every playbook can take a gun as part of their loadout. No problem. Fuckin’ guns just everywhere. And when you use them, their consequences are one step worse when you roll a 1-3. Guns are everywhere, and they make everything worse. My US-based players understood this dynamic immediately.

Stuff I Love

As I said in the introduction, a|state has redeemed Forged in the Dark for me as a fun, playable system. Little things like renaming old ideas (position/effect is now risk/reward, you now “go big” or “go small” by taking on more or less risk for more or less reward rather than “trade position for effect,” is the big one) all the way up to the initial full-DIY setup, adds up to a game that feels fresh right when I was ready to take a break.

The Overall Experience

All the little refinements and quality of life improvements make for a solid-playing FitD game. Missions can stretch out longer because the characters can take breaks. Downtime is much more dynamic because of the Trouble Engine. The formal risk/reward grid is quite nice. Just dozens of small adjustments to a game platform going on its sixth year.

This will be familiar to the folks who enjoyed my position/effect chart I did for Band of Blades a while back.

I kind of wish the main play phases weren’t called Downtime and Mission any more. Those feel vestigal to Blades in the Dark to me. They’re really “personal business” and “corner business” in my mind. This is good, because now there is no point at which the players switch off their roleplaying brains to do upkeep stuff. I’ve been experimenting with exactly this language at our table (“you’re on personal business now” and “you’re on corner business now”) to excellent effect.

The Setup

All that DIY work to get the game up and running that first session is very un-Blades but also? It produced a very compelling, intimate setup. The players are invested, our Corner feels utterly unique, and there are plenty of handles to grab onto.

I also love the small stakes at play in the neighborhood. All that DIY time pays off in terms of investment, and the players are hooked hard on the thing they’re working on. The holding environment for a|state is very community-based because of it, rather than working in service to your personal ambition in a gang or ship, or in service to some larger entity.

There are also a lot of open-ended questions at the heart of the setting: What is the City and what’s outside of it? What was the Shift? What was the Bombardment? The book offers a few ideas on each of these topics with the implication that they might all be wrong…or right! The setting has fun, workable mysteries at its core and gives the GM encouragement to come up with their own answers.

Weird but Relatable

The playbooks and the trusts and the various canonical settings and characters are pretty weird! But in the end, the setting is about relatable concerns but at a parodic scale.

You think inequality is bad? Well now you live in a sopping, soaked ruin and the bad guys live in a mile-high glass tower! You think religion is oppressive? Well now you belong to a church that thinks God made the City to torture you! You’re afraid of crime? Well literally everyone is a criminal in this neighborhood. War is bad? Well, we fight our wars with actual children! And so on. I think if you play toward the overwrought, operatic setting elements you more easily access the game’s themes than if everything was strictly realistic.

Bonus thing I love: dingins! What the heck are they? Basically it’s “technology that scares you,” whatever it might be. A fun, weird stand-in the writers don’t have to spend any time rationalizing.

Stuff I Don’t Love

Organization Problems

Organizationally it’s set up to be read cover to cover, and it’s a joy to do so. But at the table, it’s nearly impossible to find things at a moment’s notice without a PDF to search. There are not enough internal references. Rules are scattered across a half-dozen chapters but conceptually they really need to be in one place. I’ve gone through the whole book with a fine-tooth comb and have written down important rules on index cards because it’s easier to find that way. The index is pretty good, but sometimes I don’t know what to call a particular table or rule.

The City Is Weird, And Not (Only) In The Good Way

The City, as presented, doesn’t feel like any sort of city I’ve ever visited.

It has very little past and zero cultural context. It isn’t set anywhere (other than, I suppose, Edinburgh). There are no immigrants because where would they have come from? There are hints at a history but that’s all they are, hints.

Are there racial or cultural tensions in The City? I don’t see how. In some ways The City, an ostensible urban nightmare, is a bit utopian. Imagine a city where the only meaningful social tension was economic (and, yeah, it’s the most notable). I think of big cities – I’m American, so Los Angeles and New York – as absolutely filled with interesting food and a thousand accents and cultural references that Aren’t Meant For Me and will forever remain opaque. If those things are meant to be present in The City, I literally have no idea how to justify them.

The Occasional Heavy Lift (and Some Slightly Undercooked Rules)

Overall, the GM is left to track a heck of a lot of stuff. Every faction has a project they’re pursuing. Every location has tags. The characters may have Hidden Agenda clocks. And so on and so forth: there is a lot to keep track of. Invest in a nice journaling book if you’re going to run this at a table.

The elaborate nature of the Trouble Engine means that taking the option of another downtime is hard to do at the table. You can’t give the process the same time and respect you can when it’s between-session homework.

Where the game features entirely new systems, occasionally the systems feel a bit undercooked. Or maybe just underexplained. The Trouble Engine itself, which I adore, also gave me entirely incorrect complications the very first time I ran it. I had to reach out to Davie to walk through how it is supposed to work. The text is actually accurate, but it required a close reading on my part to suss out (specifically) that noise tells you how intense a new Trouble might be while the Corner’s Hope tells me how many new Troubles may be appearing at that intensity level. It’s there in the text, but honestly I thought every Faction produced a Trouble. Exhausting.

Another example: when the GM finalizes the setup, they decide on the underlying danger that’s behind the Danger Clock. This is great, because it establishes a unifying arc that you can always refer back to. As the Danger Clock ticks over, you get bad results (either escalations of existing Threats, new factions arrive, roll on a table, etc.). But also you decide on the ruin that will take place should the danger “run its course.” That is, if the Corner’s morale or resources ever ends at 0. This also means the game is over, so the epilogue is the only place you’ll ever put that ruin to use. Does knowing the ruin help visualize the underlying danger behind the Danger Clock? I’m not sure. Normally I’m pretty good at figuring out why things are included but in the case of deciding what ruins will befall the corner, no idea.

Bottom Line

A|state is a solid iteration on a proven game platform, engaging setting, community-based premise, best-in-class GM support for campaign play, just gorgeous to look at and a dark pleasure to read. It’s been a ton of fun to play and I look forward to many, many more sessions following our weird little alliance around.

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