From Troubadour’s Workshop: Faction Warfare in the Dark

Anatomy of a Faction

Factions in Blades in the Dark serve two primary functions: first, to illustrate setting, and second, to provide numeric data to several of the game’s player-facing mechanics. Per the “Factions of Doskvol” handout on p. 21 of the Player’s Kit, all base Blades factions consist of at least four major data points:

However, p. 285 of the rulebook lays out a number of additional data points for the “notables” of Doskvol (defined as the Underworld subgroup of factions and a handful of extras), from which we may extrapolate a far more detailed “faction game” — one whose full extent and dynamics are obscured from us by design. The intent of this design, like that of factions themselves, appears twofold: first to illustrate the murky waters and cutthroat odds that players must navigate in rising through the ranks, and second, to leave room for each playgroup to nuance “their” Doskvol beyond the initial details John Harper provides. The incomplete nature of the faction listings, however, poses implicit questions to hackers looking to modify the faction game itself: What here is the mechanical wheat, and what is — in John’s words — the chaff of the “poetry layer?” What in this pile is actually valuable to us as designers, if so much of it is seemingly optional to core functionality?

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Lonely at the top. Faction data in the Player Kit is comparatively sparse.

Consider — as the only Tier VI faction with strong hold, the Imperial Military are the biggest dogs in the yard; they throw the most dice around, and they aren’t in immediate danger of losing their position to a lower-tier rival. Nevertheless, they lack the more detailed criteria seemingly required to play in the ‘second’ faction game, and as a result fall into the narrative background until called upon. By contrasting the sparse Player Kit entries with the rulebook listings, we may identify these secondary criteria, or minor data points (w/ apparent subdata):

John’s invitation to write minor data for the unlisted factions seems implicit to me, but doing so exhaustively for every faction in Doskvol is a step beyond what I need from this exercise. Rather than populate the full suite (though I certainly see myself doing so in the future for my home game), I decided to use the “Doskvol Notables” as my test bed and map out the faction game in code.

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Initialization — most things here are randomly generated from XML. Names are boosted from an unrelated list maintained by my longtime partner in roleplaying crimes, Atlus/SEGA’s John Moralis.
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Raw faction infodumps with major and minor data. Constructing these really helped me re-familiarize myself with Doskvol as a setting.

As mentioned on the previous blog, understanding the BitD faction game has largely manifested for me as work on a “Blades simulator” Java applet (above). I’d hoped to expose a version of the applet with this post, but due to the interwoven nature of the Blades system, the applet has expanded in scope to simulate more mechanics than I’d anticipated — and with more features come more bugs to squash. Unfortunately, the applet has now become an unanticipated timesink and I’ve learned most of the things I needed to from the exercise, so I am momentarily shelving it to apply lessons learned to my games. They’re the priority here, after all. A future post will include source code if I cannot find time to round out the feature set and bugfix problem areas with the applet (downtime actions, mostly).

For now, let’s examine some takeaways, and discuss how they might be applied to my projects:

Finding 1: Faction Data are Semi-Modular

I started by transcribing the Doskvol Notables into an XML table with a common scheme. I hadn’t worked with XML parsing since college, so this was an opportunity to reacquaint myself with old skills.

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Data! Data! Data entry! HO!

Major data is all stored in the first <faction> tag, as well as “soft”/purely descriptive minor data (description, situation, and quirks). By my reckoning, writing and maintaining soft faction data appears to be a matter of wholecloth GM fiat, as Blades provides no rules or tables for generating them in the way it does for turf, assets, NPCs, etc. Furthermore, soft faction data is not friendly to modular behavior — which is to say, soft items like situations cannot be traded freely between factions in the manner that “hard” items like turf and assets can.* Therefore, we can think of factions as a semi-modular system, like a power supply with removable cables. Some parts are required and integral, but others that came attached can be swapped around.

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An extremely scientific diagram.

The modules we can swap and manipulate cleanly are stored in subtags of the <faction> tag. While — once again — we lack explicit rules for flipping items between factions, shifting control of extremely limited turf is arguably integral to Doskvol’s living ecosystem, and it’s easy to imagine similar circumstances for asset trading, NPCs turning coat, delegation of projects to allies, and so on. When so inspired as GMs, we form connections and what-ifs around the data we’re provided — and for many, that process is where adventure hooks come from. What happens to the Circle of the Flame should the players convince one of the Seven to leave its ranks?** The Powered by the Apocalypse camp would surely chorus back “play to find out,” but practically speaking, a Blades campaign needs more defined procedures (the playing) for keeping track of all its disparate threads. Rather than leave GMs to wrangle faction statblocks on their own, creating a codified set of “faction actions” that capitalize on and manipulate an ecosystem of hard data seems the logical next step to me.

*At least not without breaking verisimilitude. It makes sense that a faction asset could change hands, but the Fog Hounds suddenly finding themselves in Lord Scurlock’s situation, with his quirks, requires slightly more stretching. However, see next footnote — there may be a way to address this…

**To abstract a step further, we can even extrapolate rules for combining and splitting factions and their data. What, for example, might Lord Scurlock filling the empty spot on the Seven look like? Could the departing member attempt to take any assets with them and establish a new (likely lower-tier) faction? (Participating in the Far Verona Faction Turn, an ongoing 3,000-player hack of the Stars Without Number Revised faction rules, has influenced my thinking here. As of this writing, the Velan Ascendancy is still holding on with a bare 3 HP, and the Imperial wolves are closing in…)

Finding 2: Faction Curve Expresses Setting (as much as the factions themselves do)

A well-constructed deck in Magic: the Gathering is often referred to as having a “good curve,” or a spread of cards playable at increasingly higher costs until the deck “curves out” (hits its maximum cost per single card). Per Richard Garfield’s “color pie” divisions and encompassing philosophy of design, deck curves become noticeably divergent from one another depending on their color content, and each color archetype has a distinct “feel” in play as a result.

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A visual explanation of mana curves found on Magic’s website. The red ones, I’m told, go faster.

“Faster” curves contain more low-cost, low-power cards the player can swarm their opponent with early on, while “slower” curves hold out for high-cost, high-power cards later in the game. If the designer of the Magic set in play has done their job well, cards at each cost-tier are also products of ludonarrative resonance, or the phenomenon of game rules and fiction echoing/supporting one another. Goblins, for example, typically come in spineless hordes of low-cost weaklings — while a single Siege Rhino’s arrival on the battlefield is an occasion all fear and respect.

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“Oh god oh fuck oh god” ~Red-based Tarkir players, probably

To stretch a metaphor, Doskvol has a fast curve with a lot of goblins. Of the 48 “cards” that constitute the city’s deck of factions, 37 of them are Tier III or lower — more than four times the amount of Tier IV+ factions. It’s crowded at the bottom, and that says something about the city and its internal dynamics. Down in the gutters, gangs upon gangs vie for the scraps of a few standout powerhouses far above their reckoning. That’s just the way the Dusk works, and as players, we buy into (or at least must acknowledge) that cutthroat nature.

Discussion with Adam Koebel’s MathSquad led me to the realization that, much in the way a deck curve expresses the ludonarrative in Magic, the curve of the faction ecosystem in a FitD hack also evokes setting. Altering the shape of the curve alters the relationships between its contents, especially when those contents are themselves narrative entities. Add “The Leviathan Setarra” as a Tier VI rival to the Imperial Military, and suddenly the tenor of the entire Duskwall ecosystem changes. What about a top-heavy “megacorps” style ecosystem, with plenty of Tier V and VI titans crowding out the IIs just trying to scrape by? I suspect such an ecosystem would encourage detailed listings, with major and minor data, for its bigger players over its underdogs. We want to know what’s going on where the conflict is — where the bulk of factions are clashing — because that’s where we can drive the wedge of uncertainty and make our characters relevant. (Consider Hamish Cameron’s The Sprawl, which bakes the creation of these powerhouse factions into its Session Zero, albeit on a more traditional PbtA chassis.)

What does this mean for RTI?

To apply these lessons, each of Dungeonhearts’ party playbook World Questionnaires will come with a mathematically distinct faction curve to fill out, which should assist in tightening subgenre focus. As of this writing, Defenders will interact with the largely meager factions of their struggling, post-apocalyptic world, Delvers with a standard mix of low- to high-power factions, and Hunters will live at the bottom of a food chain of powerful, mostly single-member factions (their destined Beasts). I’m particularly looking forward to fleshing out the Hunter curve, as precedent for single-member factions is set by Lord Scurlock and Ulf Ironborn — and presenting Beasts as competing with upper-tier factions puts them at a power level I’m happy with.

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“Great Jagras” by ELSASS. A middling faction with a small gang? “Adaptations” instead of quirks, “range” instead of turf? This might turn out to be a deceptively simple reskinning job…

Companies and drop squads in my mecha tactics game, Drop in 3, are also deeply entrenched in the idea of semi-modular parts and fluidity of assets (including a neutral “faction market” mechanic for item and personnel acquisitions—for which Paradox’s recent Battletech entry is a chief inspiration).

And until I have more to share, that’s it for this blog. Thank you for allowing me to share my process and thoughts with you as my projects continue to develop. In the interest of breaking Patreon radio silence, Q4 2018 and Q1 2019 raw design notes for Dungeonhearts and Drop in 3 will be going up on Red Troubadour Inn later this week.

Until then,
Patrick // Troub

A queer tabletop design house run by a coffee genasi. http://twitter.com/red_troubadour/ and http://patreon.com/RTI_RPG/

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