What the Rulebook Didn’t Include: Glitch

This is the first in what I hope will be a series featuring folks with deep mastery of their favorite games sharing the techniques they’ve developed that aren’t in the text. Enjoy! — PB

One of my favorite games is Jenna Moran‘s Glitch. It’s a game about retired world-killing void-gods solving mysteries and forgetting to pay the rent. (How can you argue with a premise like that?) Its combination of strong narrative structures for character development, an extensive and well-developed toolkit of miraculous powers for PCs, and a premise that explores how to live when the world is wrong makes for distinctive characters and powerful scenes. However, between the size of the book, the number and power of the options it gives to PCs, and its unconventional narrative structures, it can be daunting to run. Nevertheless, if you approach Glitch on its own terms, it supports unique and dynamic play without requiring a lot of prep work.

Glitch: A Story of the Not

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Glitch talks about scenario-driven play and provides an excellent array of brief campaign premise suggestions, but doesn’t provide much guidance on how to develop specific scenarios or how to tie them together with the other structures of the game. In addition, the book is vague on how to determine some of specific GM-determined numbers you’ll encounter during play. This is how I develop and run scenarios when running Glitch.

A Questing Base

Some games benefit from extensive campaign-level GM planning, but for Glitch I trust that PC Arcs will handle long-term concerns, so I can prep one session at a time. The most important thing to consider for a session is the focus quest: pick the PC that’ll be the focus character for this session and look at the storyline quest they’ve chosen. Sometimes, the situation at the end of the previous session will point you at a particular PC to focus on; the rest of the time, just cycle around to give everyone the same amount of time in focus.

Make sure you understand what the player’s going for with the storyline quest they’ve chosen. It’s easy for players, depending on what they’re used to, to pick a quest from the book without thinking about it in depth, in which case you might need to work with them to develop how the quest and its goals connect to their particular circumstances. Or they may have well-developed ideas about what the quest represents in their character’s life and development, in which case it’s important to prompt them to share that with you so you can take it into account. Ask questions and think about shaping the circumstances of the session to support the play they’re looking for, whether that’s the character pursuing a goal, struggling with a problem, or something else.

Some quests have particular NPC roles associated with them. The quest descriptions in the book are generally open-ended about the NPCs, which allows for a lot of flexibility but can also make things feel vague. The player may have strong ideas about who that NPC is, whether it’s an existing character or whether they want to encounter someone new as part of the quest; if so, that’s important to keep in mind so you can make sure that character shows up. If the player doesn’t have a clear idea, work with them to brainstorm ideas for who the NPC could be until you come up with a basic concept that’s interesting to both of you. In either case, be sure to put some thought into how this character will be involved in the happenings of the session. Since quest NPCs are likely to be major recurring elements rather than one-time events, putting extra care into making sure you have a well-developed concept pays off.

Also pay particular attention to the quest’s major goals. While players can invoke the quest flavor options freely, making it easy to work them in, major goals represent dramatic or climactic moments and benefit from steering and setup to make them both attainable and satisfying. Plan your session to feature a situation that provides opportunities to meet some of those goals and that includes any NPCs or other elements associated with the quest. It’s okay if the player ends up going in a different direction! But it’s good to give them the option. Thinking about major goal opportunities provides inspiration for a more distinctive premise than I would’ve come up with otherwise.

In addition, if the focus PC has been on this quest for a bit and seems likely to finish it this session, look at the listed result or reward associated with the quest’s position in their Arc and think about how to build towards that. Setting up the scenario so that the outcome will make sense helps strengthen the Arc as a supporting structure for satisfying long-term play. Some of the results are largely player-facing and don’t need much GM help; for example, the result from an Emptiness 1 quest is “You make a change in your life,” and that’s easy enough for the player to handle on their own. However, some quest results, especially later on in an Arc, work best with situation support that you provide; for example, a Shepherd 3 quest has the result “You almost make [things right], but it’s snatched away from you,” which really benefits from an unexpected, external actor interfering with the PC’s efforts. And if you’ve been playing long enough that the PC’s are close to completing their Arc entirely, that’s definitely a time to think back over the PC’s progression over the course of the game and bring back loose threads that could contribute to a satisfying resolution.

Spotlighting a Mystery

The focus quest may give you a pretty clear idea of what the PCs will be dealing with, but most of the time you’ll need to plan a situation more than that. Glitch is a game of exploration, so you’ll want to include things for the PCs to discover, explore, and investigate. However, the book doesn’t give much guidance about developing mysteries on a smaller scale than a campaign premise.

Perhaps you have a big mystery or overarching situation planned for your campaign, and you’ll think about some piece of that that the PCs will encounter in this session. I’m more likely to come up with a mystery or wondrous situation with a smaller scope, and leave any broader implications to develop over time. (Don’t worry too much about whether you’ll actually resolve a situation in a single session; at least for me investigations generally take longer than I expect, but that normally just means the players find them engaging.) For sessions after the first, look at the log of what Spotlights players have used previously to remind yourself of what folks are interested in for ideas of what to build on.

A lot of my mysteries end up, roughly: “some miraculous entity did something weird and extreme, the PCs stumble upon it or are asked for help with it, and this draws them into a web of different actors working at cross purposes”. You can get a lot of mileage from variations on this formula. Maybe an Excrucian is attacking something of Creation the PC is particularly attached to. Maybe some Noble decided that rabbits should breathe fire now. Maybe someone stole their favorite coffee shop, or is troubling their mortal friend. Maybe an old companion of the Host needs them for one last job and won’t take no for an answer.

The Supporting Cast

In terms of practical details, coming up with an engaging cast of NPCs is the most important part of prep, and usually what I spend the most time on. Glitch talks some about the kinds of miraculous entities that exist and what sorts of things they can do, but it doesn’t provide much guidance about how to build relationships between them that draw in the PCs or how to develop their motivations. It’s important to think about what they want, how they’re scheming to get it, and how this intersects with the interests of the PCs.

Avoid status quo bias: NPCs that are willing to drastically change the world in pursuit of some goal create interesting situations for the PCs to meddle with. Even if you’re not intending to focus on politics, I generally recommend having at least a few different miraculous players involved who have conflicting interests, which leads to interesting interactions and gives the PCs opportunities to play one side against another.

When thinking about NPCs and what they want, keep in mind that a large part of what makes Glitch unique is the juxtaposition of the miraculous and the mundane, and the idea that unanswerable void-god powers don’t actually solve all your problems. A lot of this is on the players, but you can help highlight this as GM as well. Have NPCs ask or expect a variety of things so the PCs have the opportunity to let them down (and recover Cost by doing so). Have miraculous NPCs ask for help with mundane problems and ordinary humans bewildered by miraculous problems. Run with the absurdity of the premise.

Imaginary Numbers

When coming up with NPCs, don’t stat them out in detail like a PC; just sketch out their focus and, briefly, some miracles they might use, based on the appendix and/or your own inspiration. The book encourages GMs to run NPCs in loose, approximate terms, and the exact values for their Attributes and the costs of their miracles tend not to matter much. You have two mechanisms to reduce the need to worry about NPC Attributes and Cost totals precisely: Cost targets for Complex Conflicts and the NPC Cost Pool. However, the book doesn’t provide much guidance for how to determine these numbers.

From my point of view, the purpose of a Complex Conflict isn’t to give the PCs a real risk of losing; it’s to make them bleed for their victory and make the scene of the conflict exciting and dramatic. The PCs are fell void-gods: if they’re willing to go all-out, not much can stand against them. That doesn’t mean you should always give them what they want when they win: the world is wrong, after all. But if they put significant Cost into their miracles, they’re likely going to be the bloodiest survivors, and if they come up with something clever to exploit a weakness of their opposition, they likely win early.

As a ballpark, I might approximate at least 3 Cost per exchange per PC, with two exchanges for a minor conflict and five or so for a climactic one. For a direct fight against a powerful miraculous foe, I might expect as much as 7 Cost per PC per exchange. But in my experience, when PCs get into a Complex Conflict it’ll be something they care about and they’ll take the opportunity to bust out the big impressive miracles and spend notably more Cost than strictly necessary. And if they do spend extra cost? Show that with a more dramatic and thorough victory. (Not necessarily a better one, in terms of positive life impact. But massive overkill should feel massive.)

In terms of NPC Cost Pools, I prefer to be even more approximate. I break NPC miracles into three categories: things that the NPC was already planning on as part of some scheme, attacks and defenses in a Complex Conflict, and miscellaneous reactions. Only the latter category do I feel much need to show restraint.

Having NPCs already doing major miraculous weirdness is a good seed for investigation and exploration and can be a strong basis for a scenario, so there’s no need to go halfway.

In a conflict, conversely, it’s more about being cool and epic: since the winner of a conflict is generally decided by how much Cost the PCs spend rather than the specific actions the NPCs do, there’s no need to worry about balance, and it makes for better scenes to have the NPCs do powerful and extreme miracles that the PCs can then be badass by overcoming or countering. Having NPCs take Wounds to justify their notional Cost expenditures also contributes to the feel of a conflict.

For NPC reactions outside a conflict, that’s when I’ll have NPCs stick to small miracles that it seems like would be natural for them: since they’re not the protagonists, if something really surprises them, but not to the point of a conflict, it often works well for them to retreat and reconsider their schemes, perhaps showing up with a new plan in a later Chapter. Since none of these situations reo mally requires detailed Cost tracking for balance purposes, I generally don’t bother worrying about the exact numbers.

Framing

Now that you have a session planned, you just have to run it. Use hard scene framing to your advantage to introduce NPCs or mysteries. By hard scene framing, I mean the GM starting a scene in the middle of something interesting, without feeling the need to explain how the situation came about or how the characters got there. Think of it like a cold open in a television show. Glitch isn’t a game about following everything the PCs do in chronological order, so don’t start the session in an ordinary circumstance or resume where a previous session left off.

Start with the PCs finding the evidence of a forbidden rite, being accused of foul deeds by an angel in a drugstore, or being woken in the middle of the night by a panicked friend. Glitch explicitly gives the GM this power for Creation-based narratives, so don’t be shy. If the PCs want to know how they got into this mess, that’s what Spotlights are for! Frame new scenes as hard as you like in the middle of a session as well if things feel like they’re starting to lag.

Unmake Your Darlings

An important thing to keep in mind in Glitch is that the PCs have an extremely flexible and powerful toolkit available, whatever their stats. Abandon any preconceived notions of limits on what they could do! The PCs can miraculously cut through any obstacle if they care enough, so things can always go in directions you didn’t plan for.

Some miraculous options may be painfully expensive, but given the large Cost pools available to PCs and the ability to take Wounds to recover Cost, they may decide to turn to these extreme options at any moment. These powerful options are a lot of what makes Glitch distinct.

Thus, you don’t need or want to have a specific solution in mind to a problem you pose, and you don’t want to try to set up situations that limit the PCs’ options to only a few choices. Make problems that are interesting for reasons other than direct difficulty: make them conceptually confusing, involve interesting sides to choose between, or relate to things the characters have complicated feelings about.

Beyond that, don’t get too attached to the problems you expect the characters to engage with. It’s good to have something planned as previously discussed to ensure that there’s interesting stuff for the PCs to explore, but if they PCs end up hieing off in another direction, let them. Glitch isn’t a game about saying no. This applies at multiple levels, from ignoring your plot hooks to check up on some other character to deciding to engage upon a major miraculous project. If the players decide they want to fundamentally change something you were treating like a setting assumption? That’s interesting play, if everyone’s down for exploring what that means for the characters.

At the same time, compatible expectations are important: if it seems like different players at the table have incompatible ideas of what they’re going for, it’s time to take a break and discuss things at the player level. And remember: you’re a player, too! It’s the PC players’ job to make things fun for you just as much as it’s your job to make things fun for them.

Follow Their Lead

During a session, build on the PCs’ interest and what they choose to Spotlight, even if this takes things in a different direction than what you originally planned. That perfectly ordinary human grocery store clerk you happened to mention? If someone Spotlights them, maybe they’re interesting after all. You don’t necessarily have to fit NPCs into any broader picture right away, but permit the PCs to follow their interest and build on it as you’re able. You can get some powerful and unexpected moments allowing mundane elements to combine with miraculous happenings in unplanned ways.

Keep in mind that Glitch has a lot going on and players may not be used to it. Have someone read the focus quest to the group at the start of the session, and make sure everyone understands how they can use quest flavor. Remind folks about using Spotlights. When a PC wants to do something cool but isn’t sure how, help them navigate the 90 possible actions Strategists have access to. If players want to know more about things they encounter, prompt them to use Spotlights or Greater Investigation to learn more. This support will help everyone learn the system and engage with the situations the PCs encounter.

A Completed Experience

Running Glitch may seem like a lot, but if you do a little session-level planning, take advantage of player interest flags like Quests and Spotlights, and don’t get too bogged down in preconceived details, it can be a fun, unique, and rewarding experience. Embrace the contradictions of being an all-powerful destroyer who doesn’t know how to live. Go forth and help your friends figure out what to make of the wrongness of the world!

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