Scum & Villainy

Scum & Villainy
Session 2

We took a week off while I was off to Oregon for vacation and hit S&V hard again last night. It was our first session of play with proper jobs and the rest of the cycle of play in place.

I’m settling into running a Blades style game feeling pretty confident about working out the position/effect matrix, offering good Devil’s Bargains, and inflicting fair-but-tough complications. Any one of those things is kind of a load after how tightly proscribed PbtA type games are typically written, and all three felt like a lot to carry at first. Like, somehow, more than even straight trad systems. Probably because pass/fail is easy and mostly all the interesting system stuff happens during combat. Interestingly, nobody has fired or been fired upon even once yet. I’m not sure they’ve even noticed.

One thought that keeps coming to me about the BitD-type position/effect matrix is, why? Like, why even bother? I’m pretty sure you could run Scum or Blades where every roll is risky position and standard effect, and it would work just fine. It’d be like playing just the Hub in Burning Wheel, where everything is a versus test. What it feels like, when we slow down and actually work out the position/effect each time in S&V, is that all those choices are a way to structure negotiations between the GM and players so that each roll and outcome feels fair. It also feels fun to dangle the choices the players do have, like trading position for effect, which they kind of frequently choose because XPs for desperate rolls are yummy, and because I’ve got clocks running literally everywhere all the time that need to get chewed through.

I think the big shift for me in feeling like I’ve “mastered” Blades-style play is how easily I deploy a clock if I feel like any given situation needs more than a one-off roll. I felt uncertain when we played Blades last year because the all-clocks-all-the-time thing felt different than how they’re deployed in Apocalypse World. I have to assume that’s because we don’t have moves available to handle bigger-than-a-moment resolutions in Blades/Scum. AW clocks are, in my mind, for big narrative arcs (although they certainly don’t have to be; that’s just how I use them), while BitD clocks are for discrete dramatic pressures.

Having lots of clocks in play at all times also makes Devil’s Bargains and consequences way easier to dream up for every roll. Mostly I go to a tick on a clock, or harm, or heat every time and it works out just fine. Occasionally, and I want to do this more, I offer up “soft move” future badness announcements. For example, in one scene last night they were trying to set up a distraction, but it meant sending a guy in a spacesuit out onto the surface of a moon to wreck some delicate equipment. The Bargain was “well, so the suit got damaged as you made your way across the surface.” No specific consequences now but an announcement that, should he roll anything less than a 6, that character’s gonna get decompressed.

Last night’s session was two jobs and two downtimes. That felt good for getting the players out of the head space that a job = a session. Jobs are jobs, and they take as long as they take. That is a little fuzzy for gambit-management purposes, but also useful so players can’t game their gambits too tightly.

The first job’s engagement roll put them in a desperate position when they cut to the job: as the ship pops out of a dark hyperlane (they’re scooting around the Iota system to smuggle a disembodied scientist to the icy Precursor ruins on Lithios) they come face-to-face with an enormous space squid! Yikes! This was also a chance to feel out how the system ratings get used in the game. I felt some uncertainty about when systems get rolled versus when the player uses their own skills, but it worked out fine. As Stras Acimovic pointed out to me in sidebar, you can resolve nearly everything in the game in several different ways. That’s fine, nobody complained.

The second job rolled immediately out of the first one’s entanglements roll during downtime. The organization they had delivered the scientist to wanted to move a frozen Xeno out of the ruins and into their lab one system away, to a secret headquarters on a moon of Nightfall in the Brekk system. The twist is that the faction that wants to resurrect the ancient Precursor alien is a despised minority, where the rest of the organization just wants to exploit the artifacts themselves. So rather than a straight transport job, they needed to hustle their way deep into the base of their own employer.

This session, everyone pushed all their economies right to the brink: used every gambit, nearly received their first Trauma levels (the Mystic did, and is now paranoid, which is terrific and sort of scary), scraped together every cred to buy enough downtime activity to go into their next job without lingering injuries. It all feels pretty desperate, which I hope is fun for them! I think my next Scum skill will be metering out the desperation a bit more carefully.

Another area I’m going to focus on is managing what has become a somewhat intricate relationship map across three of the four systems and five different factions. It felt a little hard to keep things feeling tight and dramatically relevant. I think some of that is the episodic nature of doing jobs, which is an interesting creative challenge for me. There’s going to be more prep during downtime than I thought!

0 thoughts on “Scum & Villainy”

  1. One thought that keeps coming to me about the BitD-type position/effect matrix is, why? Like, why even bother?

    But isn’t that the whole foundation of the game?

  2. Judd Karlman sure, but why even bother when a simpler procedure would get you mostly there anyway?

    (My best guess is the bit after that sentence, that it provides the ritual where everyone can agree to a final decision and feel like they had their say.)

  3. Another reply: I’m not sure the resolution system is necessarily the foundation of the whole game. It’s an interesting question though!

    The foundation, to me, is how the campaign world is organically deployed via jobs and downtime. Like, you could prrrobably play Scum and Villainy with a dumb pass/fail system as long as the jobs and the downtime kept spooling out new situations.

    I know there are other opinions about what the foundation to Blades/Forged in the Dark is. Mark Diaz Truman doesn’t even think you can meaningfully hack Blades, I assume because of his opinion about what the foundation of the game is.

  4. So two things.

    1) I was actually surprised to see that many clocks on the table. It’s certainly a way to run things but you don’t have to. If you watch some of the games I’ve run online we generally use clocks for complex things that can’t be overcome in a single roll, growing threats (alarms, alert levels) or as you put it overarching things (faction goals). It’s a way to run stuff (and it’s fine) but I don’t know if it’s the sort of base assumption for play. If it’s working for you/your group—keep doing it! 😀

    2) Why even bother? Fictional position (it’s kind of ruined me for many other games at this point).

    If I describe any fiction for my AW character as I seize by force it largely doesn’t matter except as poetry for the table to enjoy. If I’m using a familiar weapon, if I’m in a better position, if I’ve got the element of surprise—my outcomes and chances are largely based on my + Hard.

    Here, as a player, I can build up fiction. I can flash back to show why someone trusts me before I shiv them. I can try to play to my advantages and make good choices. We establish stakes and fiction as a table. And consequently I’m rewarded. My consequences are lessened, I have better control of the situation, I have better outcomes, I’ll take less harm.

    Also I may not anticipate something, and I might have to make some desparate calls, and everyone is sitting with baited breath because a miss/middling-result on a desparate roll against someone with potency or of a higher tier can mean death.

    It’s a game where you don’t just roll your plusses (you can, but the most common outcome is 4-5 and that’s what this really thrives in), you establish fiction and think through what you do. If you don’t do that, if you strip all that away, you have something far lesser. You have a game where you can easily just shrug and say “I attack” and have the same outcomes. For some people that’s fine, but it’s not what I’m looking for. When I watch Firefly/Star Wars/Cowboy Bebop I can see the risky move, and the 4-5 outcomes. I can see the desparate moves and their consequences. And I wouldn’t trade that for simplicity.

    In something like SaV you can get away more easily with “hub play” because the setting and the genre is a bit forgiving and it won’t just ruin the game. It’ll work! But for something like BoB where the enemies usually outclass the PCs and you can’t just brute force solutions, and you have to actually come up with a plan on the spot to have a shot … this is a huge difference.

    So that’s the why ^_^

  5. When we first started play testing, there was an ADDITIONAL roll/step/decision axis to the position-effect matrix. (Effectively for damage, or number of steps of effect).
    It was a little unwieldy and John tweaked the resolution system many times till it got to the final iteration.

    Even the names of each step changed numerous times in order to alleviate the confusion that ensued during the ‘ritual’ of establishing position and effect at the table.

    Also, I’m pretty sure there is a section of the rules that says the ‘hub’ is effectively just a standard effect, risky test and to use this compressed mechanic as you get a handle on the system.

    I’ve used that lots and then just add a discussion for position and effect if the situation really warrants it.

  6. Also, Stras Acimovic is super wise and I agree wholeheartedly with his evaluation of narrative position in Blades. It really is exciting as your player skill increases.

  7. You do position/effect in PbtA games too, but it’s less concretely defined a lot of times. The GM move you make in response to an Apocalypse World move takes into account the fiction just like Blades actions do. Blades makes that part more explicit, and hangs a bunch of playbook abilities off that matrix so players can feel like they have ways to cheat, and players love having special ways to break the rules. That’s just science.

    It’s kind of a little bit difficulty-setting/target number, but only when viewed in terms of potential risk, not actual difficulty.

    FWIW the thing I struggled with most when I started running Blades wasn’t the position/effect thing but trying to adjudicate how much of a thing/what things could be resisted. I started off with some bad habits about letting resistance rolls avoid more consequences than they reduced, and trying to keep to that (for consistency’s sake) as PCs got better at resisting defanged a lot of threats later on.

  8. I think I’ve actually got a pretty good bead on using resistance rolls to reduce effects. One part of that is folding more stuff into a consequence: if you’ve taken a level 2 condition and reduced effect, I might back one of those off. Or both, and look very generous. 😈

  9. I get and love overarching threat clocks, used as a gm helper device. But player progress clocks felt tame when I used them (in another game). Maybe I got them wrong. You tell me. But essentially they gave the players a visual representation of how many rolls (with added color) they needed to succeed at before something consequential and real happened in the fiction.

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