4 - The World
- 4.1 - Agenda
- 4.2 - Always Say
- 4.3 - The Principles
- Drape the Rules in Fiction
- Portray Simple People
- Kill Your Darlings Mercilessly
- Be a Fan of the Protagonists
- Think Offscreen Too
- Ask Honest Questions
- 4.4 - World Reactions
- Open & Closed
- The Right Time and Place
- World Reactions List
- Using Tags
- 4.5 - Prep & Agents
In most regards the World is just a normal Player: you act and react to what the other Players say and do, moment by moment, using your character and their moves to experience and explore places, people, and events.
In a nutshell, you play to find out what happens next.
The main difference is that “your character” is a multitude of NPCs and locations, while "their moves" are World Reactions. This is a bit more demanding than what other Players are required to do in the game, but not by much, and this whole chapter exists to teach you, guide you, and support you in playing the World as effectively and comfortably as possible; follow these instructions closely, because all the other procedures in the game are built upon them.
4.1 - Agenda
- Play to find out
- Make sense
- Rock the boat
These three goals are your Agenda, the three things you should strive to accomplish during the game with every single word you say and choice you make. It is not your job to entertain an audience of Players. It is not your job to be a judge of good roleplay or an arbiter of fair challenges. It is not your job to be the adversary, to defeat the Protagonists, to deny them what they want, to punish them, to control them, or to surprise them by yanking the rug out from under their feet. Most of all, it is not your job to pre-plan a storyline.
So what is your job? I’m glad you asked...
Play to Find Out
It has already been mentioned a bunch of times that playing to find out is the main goal of the game for both World and Players alike. You do it by coming to the table with dreams and ideas and desires, by imagining a world full of mystical places, weird creatures, and unusual peoples, but never clinging to them.
Things might come to pass as you imagine them, or differently, or not at all. Any outcome is a good one for you because your core directive is “this is cool, now I wonder what will happen next!”. The rest of this chapter offers plenty of practical tools to help you achieve this easily, and then make the most out of it.
As World you don’t need (nor want) to be a novel writer, movie director, or even a storyteller. You just need to make both the setting and the characters within it feel lifelike and reasonable. There are two easy ways to achieve this.
One is to communicate. What looks sensible to you might seem baffling to someone else, so then what good is it? So don't ever expect others to "get you;" instead, offer them your ideas, voice your opinions and concerns, but also listen to the others and be ready to accept their input. Be ready to compromise, and to help others compromise as well.
Two is to do the obvious thing as much as possible. Be banal! Use narrative archetypes, stereotypes, and clichés you know and love. Don’t try to be clever, mysterious, and unpredictable. Instead, portray everything transparently: people, monsters, animals, even the land and the plants and the weather. Start by making your world consistent and predictable; this will make it feel reasonable, solid and I dare say realistic. Surprises will later emerge spontaneously.
Rock the Boat
Protagonists’ lives should be interesting, adventurous, and dramatic. There are good ways and bad ways to achieve these goals. Rocking the boat is not about coming up with implausible plot twists or stealing victory away from Protagonists when they least expect it. Instead, you can rock the boat in a play-to-find-out way just by looking at your NPCs, finding out what they want, and having them act to get it.
This could mean something big: a street thug wants a better life so they start a gang that stirs up trouble in the city; an orc warrior wants to become a hero so they raise an army to invade the human lands; a heartbroken magician wants to bring a loved one back to life so they mess around with dark powers that could threaten the realm.
This could also mean something small: someone wants to help a Protagonist but ends up being in the way and creating trouble; someone wants personal gain and is willing to go against a Protagonist for it; someone wants something but incidentally, a Protagonist is in their way.
Character... desire... action... this is how you Rock the boat.
4.2 - Always Say
- What the principles demand
- What the rules demand
- What your prep demands
- What honesty demands
In Fantasy World each Player says what their Protagonist says and does, what they think, feel and remember, and answers questions about their lives and surroundings.
As the World, you instead say everything else: how the environment appears and behaves, and what every Non-Protagonist Character says,does,thinks, and feels.
Whether you are the World or a Protagonist, be sure that among the things you say, you also Always say the things demanded in the list above. Here is why:
What the principles demand
In the next section you’ll be presented with a short list of Principles, things you should strive to do in order to better achieve the goals set in your Agenda. Always say what the principles demand.
What the rules demand
The game rules are meant to manipulate and shape the conversation happening between Players in unique ways. Rules will ask you to say some things or to say things in a specific way. This is what helps you all experience an engaging and unique story without the effort and skill that writing a novel would require. Always say what the rules demand.
What your prep demands
Even without pre-planning you will end up preparing some material, making decisions about what the environment looks like and how the NPCs act and react, putting down in writing lists of things, facts, events, and all sorts of other details. Be true to your ideas and clear in relaying them. Always say what your prep demands.
What honesty demands
The Players depend on the World to give them real information they can use to imagine and understand what’s happening around their Protagonists. Being abundantly clear and honest is always your best policy. Play with integrity and an open hand, as the Protagonists are entitled to the full benefits (and consequences) of their moves, their rolls, their resources. Don’t withhold information, don’t weasel out of plain answers, don’t play gotchas. Always say what honesty demands.
4.3 - The Principles
- Drape the rules in fiction
- Portray simple people
- Kill your darlings mercilessly
- Be a fan of the protagonists
- Think off-screen too
- Ask honest questions
Principles are fundamental truths that serve as the foundation for all the systems in the game. Here they are expressed as actions: do this thing to obtain this effect, do this other thing to create this feeling, etc. They are meant to be practical tools the World uses to achieve the goals set by the game's Agenda.
Drape the Rules in Fiction
In order to Make Sense you need to summon the illusion of a lifelike and reasonable world. One tool to achieve such an aim is to drape the rules in fiction. Here are some practical applications:
Talk to the Protagonists, not to the Players
Don’t address the other Players by their real names; instead, speak directly to the Protagonist characters. This helps Players to stay in-fiction throughout the play session, but it also makes it starkly clear when you are addressing the Player about an out-of-game issue, which is particularly useful when dealing with the One Golden Rule.
Address the Protagonist: "Lady Deanna, do you want to kill or spare him?"
Not the Player: "Julia, does Lady Deanna want to kill or spare him?"
Unless Needed: "Julia, is it ok for you if I describe Lady Deanna this way?"
When you use a World Reaction (explained in just a little while) pretend to do it because of in-fiction (diegetic) reasons. That’s a ruse of course; you do it because of something that happened at the table: someone describes something relevant, somebody misses a roll, some mechanic calls for you to answer, somebody’s waiting for you to say something.
You react because of the failed roll. But you chose this Reaction because it was fitting the fictional situation. And then you described it as if its effect was a natural consequence of the characters’ actions, an obvious cause-and-effect within the fiction.
Player - I try to fast-talk the guards into letting me and Deanna be.
A move is rolled, but it results in a Snag. This leads the World to select a Reaction. In this case, they choose to Take Away Their People.
BAD World - You miss the roll, so you two get separated!
GOOD World - They seem outraged by your bullshit, so they shove you aside and drag Deanna away!
Don't Name the Reaction
By the same token, never just say the name of the Reaction you use. Instead, describe its effects in fiction.
If your Reaction is to Take Away Their People don’t just state “you get separated” but describe the guards dragging Deanna away.
If your Reaction is to Inflict harm don’t just state “the attack inflicts Temp harm” but describe how a guard steps forward and viciously hits the Protagonist in the back with the butt of a pike.
You can also specify the mechanical effects if something is not immediately clear and obvious. And you must answer honestly if a Player asks you for clarifications. But never, ever, just state the mechanical effect without first describing how it looks in the fiction.
Fiction First, Mechanics Later: "The guard hits you like this ... it looks like Temp harm."
These techniques are never meant to hide the rules or to keep the World's actions secret and unintelligible. They just mean that you should convey this info in a fictional way whenever possible. And if a Player asks “Wait, which Reaction was that?!” you should be open and forthcoming about it. Rules are not a dirty thing to be hidden away. Answer plainly, say the name of the Reaction, explain your reasoning and process. This is very useful for the World to properly learn how to wield the mechanics of this game.
Once you do what it takes to be honest, go back to a fiction-first approach and do whatever you can to drape all your game actions in a veil of fiction.
Portray Simple People
This is part of how you can both Make Sense and Rock the Boat. First of all, you need to give a name to all your NPCs. As soon as they get even a single line of dialogue or any significant on-screen action, name them.
But names are only the beginning. Find one striking physical feature in each NPC, a body part. What NPCs do in life is follow their parts around - their nose, their stomach, their big ears, their genitals, their gut, their childish smile, their crazy hair, their wide eyes, their clenched fist, their broken heart. And they are pretty straightforward about it! They do what they want to do when they want to do it, and if something gets in their way they deal with it now.
Whenever possible make everyone into Simple People. Be they kings or farmers, give them a simple drive, and have them act according to it. Actually, make anything capable of action into Simple People: animals, monsters, talking swords, sentient plants, even places if you can imagine a metaphorical way for them to have a drive and to act on it.
Once you have Simple People at hand, make sure that their uncomplicated self-interests involve the Protagonists individually, not as a group. Show different sides of their personalities to the different Protagonists in play.
How to Name a Name
Names are both trivial and very important.
Trivial, because you need to produce a ton of names. And you don't know whether they will stick around or be forgotten after a couple of scenes. So don't stress. Just slap any name on a new NPC and be done with it. Or ask the Players to come up with names, who cares?!
Important, because extremes matter. A particularly silly or bad name can ruin the illusion of a story that Makes Sense. Likewise, a particularly apt or memorable name can be enough to turn a random NPC into a recurring character. Mind the extremes; avoid the bad, embrace the good.
Kill Your Darlings Mercilessly
Whenever your attention lands on someone or something that you own, consider killing it, overthrowing it, burning it down, blowing it up. Be it an individual NPC, a faction of NPCs, some arrangement between NPCs, even an entire reign or civilization, consider razing it to the ground.
This plays right into Rocking the Boat: no champion is unbeatable, no fortress is impregnable, no pact is unbreakable. This keeps the terrain shifting under the Protagonists feet, for good or ill. They might be able to accomplish great feats that will change the world but are also never safe from danger and uncertainty. There are two sides to this coin.
One, the Protagonists will try to break your things, so let them. By all means show them a good fight, toy around with tactics, maneuvering, threats, and everything that leads up to the moment of real violence; but as soon as your NPCs suffer harm you should consider breaking them: defeated, wounded, incapacitated, scared, demoralised, find a way to have them stop fighting. The harm effects give you plenty of options. Unless violence is truly of dramatic importance, you should keep it as short and to the point as possible. This actually enhances its narrative effect, making harm feel brutal and dangerous.
Two, break your own things because you can. Protagonists go around doing stuff and this is all good and well, but actions have consequences. Have others pay for the Protagonists’ actions. Remember your simple people; NPCs might balk at the idea of going against the Protagonists and therefore might choose easier targets like a family of peasants or a young servant. Or the Protagonists’ allies could be less careful and subtle than what the Players hope for. Or they might leverage the Protagonists’ presence and actions to settle personal grudges and scores. It’s all your stuff, after all, so put your bloody fingerprints on everything you touch.
Be a Fan of the Protagonists
Being a fan of the Protagonists means that you like them and want to see more of them. So always avoid taking away the things that make the Protagonists cool to begin with:the Veteran’s ancestral weapon, but also the Veteran’s collection of poems that they don’t allow anyone to read. The things that make the Protagonists match our expectations and also what makes them rise above them. Don’t take those away. At least, not for prolonged periods of time.
But an easy life of constant success with no real challenge is rarely interesting, both to experience firsthand and to witness unfold. Fantasy World mechanics will see that this does not come to pass, giving you the right tools to Rock the Boat. But rocking the boat doesn’t mean sinking it.
The best way to avoid such extremes is to strive to Make Sense. And a very easy way to achieve this is to have Protagonists’ actions be consequential. Always give the Protagonists what they work for, but then ask yourself: how will my NPCs respond? Reevaluate the things driving your Simple People. Whose needs change? Whose opinions change? Who was an enemy, but now is afraid? Whose allegiances have shifted? Who benefits from recent changes? Who gets hurt by them?
Let the Protagonists’ successes ripple outward.
Think Offscreen Too
When it’s time for you to React, imagine what your various NPCs must have been doing in the meantime. Have any of them done something offscreen that now becomes evident? Are any of them doing things offscreen that, while invisible to the Protagonists, deserve your quiet acknowledgement? This is part of having the setting Make Sense and, if you pay attention to your Agents (explained in a little while), is part of Rocking the Boat too.
But if you spend your Reaction to develop stuff off screen, what should happen on screen? Nine times out of ten the best option is to gift the Protagonists with a success. Success can move things forward much better than failure, and it’s also easier to improvise: just give the Protagonist what they were trying to get. Besides, you did react, you did change things, so it’s not like the Protagonists are getting a free pass.
A great thing to do when you develop an off-screen situation is to put an Hourglass on it (chapter 4 section 5). This will be explained better in a later chapter, but it basically means that you have a way to keep track of the progress of an ongoing situation developing in the background.
In a nutshell
Reward them ON screen while you (amicably) mess with them OFF screen.
Do it while keeping true to the Be a Fan principle, and everything will be fine.
Ask Honest Questions
Playing the role of World doesn’t mean you have to know everything about everything; after all, you are playing to find out too! By asking honest questions you can make your job as World both easier and more fun when it comes to three important areas:
- Creating new content on the fly.
- Making decisions you’d rather not make.
- Finding ways to engage the Players and leverage their Protagonists.
Create New Content
When you need to come up with content for the setting, ask a specific Player for an explanation of how something in the game world is or how it works. Try to do this only when your question touches on an obvious interest or expertise of their Protagonist, and keep it specific.
BAD question: "Occultist, how does magic work?"
This is a terrible question. Too big, too vague, too abstract.
GOOD question: "Occultist, is magic immoral or illegal where you come from?"
This is much better. It's easy to answer, just a detail, but ripe with potential consequences.
More Good Examples: "Troubadour, have you ever been in this city before?" "Wayfarer, which plant grows in this region that can serve your purpose? What does it look like? Does it have a unique smell?"
When you need to make decisions you don’t want to make yourself, you can ask...
... an NPC what to do by honestly asking yourself, “What would this NPC do in this situation?” Yes, you are still making the decision yourself, but this gives you a way to make it with integrity and to help you figure out what could Make Sense.
... Mother When & Father Time what to do, which is to say you can avoid the decision by turning it into an Hourglass. Again, you are making the decision yourself, but this way it might or might not happen because of how future events unfold, not because of an immediate arbitrary decision; it also gives you the time and means to plan its execution instead of just winging it.
... the Protagonists what to do by asking them what they would do here and now about the thing you are deciding on. So don’t ask yourself “Will Samara live?” but instead ask them “Samara is gravely wounded, what do you do?”. If they do nothing, she dies. If they somehow help, she lives. Be honest! After all, you wanted them to decide for you, why cheat?
Engage the Players
When you need help figuring out how to engage the Players, but also to have things and events Make Sense for them specifically and to Rock the Boat for them in a personal way, your best option is to ask a Player for immediate and intimate details about their Protagonist’s experience. Immediate, as in where they are, what they would do, how they would do it, why they are doing it. Intimate, as in how they feel about it, what they think about it. Are they afraid or excited? Have they thought about the other person’s perspective? Do they think of themselves as righteous and heroic? Why? How?
Keep an eye on the Protagonists’ Issue and Doubt and compare them to their actions and thoughts, then ask questions about what you see: do they match? Do they diverge? What does this say about the Protagonist as a person? By doing so you will uncover the things the Protagonists (and their Players) truly care about and are invested in.
But asking questions is only half of it. The other half is putting the answers to good use:
- Use them to inform your own aesthetic, incorporating them and their implications into your own vision.
- Refer to them later in play, bringing them back up into current events.
- Build on them, adding details and imagery of your own.
World - So Lady Ennoia threatens the burgomaster and gets the info she needed. How does she feel about this? How does this fit with her Doubt "I don't want to be like my father"?
Player - Oh shit, I did not think about that. She... she laughs at the man's cowardice. But inside she feels uneasy, although maybe she doesn't really see why. I mean, father was way worse than this!
World - Sure. If you say so...
Player - You are evil!
World - Thanks.
4.4 - World Reactions
- Hit the Issue / Feed the Doubt
- Show signs of trouble
- Highlight a downside
- Show an opportunity
- Reveal an unwelcome truth
- Take away their stuff
- Take away their people
- Turn their move back on them
- Inflict harm
- Put them at a Disadvantage
- Make an Agent Reaction
After every Reaction ask “what do you do?”
Success is always an effective way to move things forward in interesting and meaningful ways. When in doubt, grant success and then focus on what happens next, on the consequences and ramifications. But success is not always available or, if you want to Rock the boat, not always desirable. World Reactions are an effective way to change the situation and set the stage for future action.
It is important to notice, though, that Reactions are not meant to always be problematic or challenging. They are not a way for the World to “punish” an unlucky roll or a poor decision. They are meant to make Protagonists’ lives interesting, to achieve your Agenda, and to implement your Principles. This sometimes means challenging and even hurting (or killing!) the PCs, but other times could mean giving them unexpectedly good news, revealing tempting opportunities, or allowing for some respite. Part of the World’s job is to judge how to best use their Reactions on a case-by-case basis during active play.
Reactions are not moves. They have no fictional trigger, no dice roll, no attached mechanical effects; they simply make something happen in the fictional reality of the game. Since the World has to Drape the Rules in Fiction, the end result of a Reaction is simply a short narration: the NPCs say and do stuff, the consequences of some action are shown, some meaningful detail is brought to the Protagonists’ attention. And then always add: “What do you do?”
Open & Closed
Reactions can be performed in an Open or Closed way, and then the World is allowed to perform one, and only one, of their Reactions when...
- [Open] ...the Protagonists somehow look at the World to know what happens next.
- [Open] ...the Protagonists (not the Players) waste time or wait for something to happen.
- [Open or Closed] ...a move calls for a Reaction.
- [Open or Closed] ...the consequences of a previous Open Reaction come together without interference.
An Open Reaction is a Reaction that offers the Protagonists some opportunity to act and respond. It’s a start to the action, not its conclusion. It’s how you set up events for future Closed Reactions.
A Closed Reaction is something the Protagonists can’t avoid or prevent anymore. It’s not necessarily a mean or cruel Reaction, but simply a definitive one.
As a rule of thumb, Reactions are always Open unless the proper conditions apply. When the proper conditions apply, a Reaction can be either Open or Closed as the World sees fit.
The Right Time and Place
Whenever possible, Reactions should happen almost immediately. The World should avoid at all costs situations where they delay a Reaction so much that it might end up being forgotten, lost in the flow of play, or, even worse, when multiple Reactions pile up. In the former case, the game would feel bland, while in the latter it would seem punitive. If for any reason the World doesn’t feel like messing with a situation when they should perform a Reaction, the right thing to do is to shift the Reaction somewhere else.
It’s important to understand that Reactions are not tied to their source. A Player does something that grants a Reaction to the World, then the World does something somewhere to change the fiction of the game, not necessarily the fiction tied to the Player’s action. Sure, the World will often find it obvious and desirable to React in a way that has to do with the source of the Reaction...
The Scoundrel rolls a Snag and the World comes up with a Reaction (Open or Closed) that has to do with the situation the PC is in. It could look like a direct consequence (you tripped an alarm) or just a chance event (guards happen to pass by).
...but it is also possible, and can be very effective and convenient, to perform the Reaction in a way that has nothing to do with its source. This has many benefits:
- It helps with keeping Spotlight Management dynamic, shifting the focus from one PC/situation to a different PC/situation.
Zamtar (Wayfarer) gets to a roof and settles in, monitoring the activity of his mark.
Just waiting around for stuff to happen gives the World an Open Reaction, which they use to make something happen somewhere else...
"...in the meantime... Bolana (Occultist), you hear a sudden knocking at the door..."
- It helps manage the Difficulty of a situation, giving a breather to some PCs while applying more pressure to others.
Gaelan (Veteran) is valiantly fighting a rock troll but is probably in over her head, so when she rolls a Snag, the World looks at the other PCs and, seeing how Fruss (the Priest) is still unharmed, uses the available Reaction to put them under more pressure.
"Infuriated by Gaelan's attacks, the rock troll rampages around the cave causing the earth to shake and some stones to fall. Fruss, one is about to crush you! What do you do?"
- It helps the World when they have no clear idea how to change one situation, allowing them to instead change a different situation that right now comes easier to them.
Some NPCs are negotiating a trade, with Trax (Knight) supervising the event. Trax is kind of just waiting to see what happens, giving an Open Reaction to the World. But the World too is not yet sure how to proceed, so they spend their Open Reaction on a situation that is much clearer in their head.
"Deanna (Troubadour) you manage to meet Lasher, but she has a worried expression on her face..."
- it helps the World to Think Offscreen Too, as they can use the Reaction to push events forward that are evolving in the background
The PCs are caught up in a tense and hectic situation when one of them rolls a Snag.
The World doesn't want to make a complicated situation even more difficult, so instead, they look at their notes. It turns out that a band of marauders was supposed to attack the village, sooner or later, and there was even an Hourglass tracking it. The World thus opts to advance that Hourglass. Nothing needs to be described right now, or at least not while the PCs are so fervently engaged, but the game state has changed and the World will somehow communicate it as soon as the PCs get out of the immediate pickle.
World Reactions List
Hit the Issue / Feed the Doubt
This is your first and best Reaction because it hits the Protagonists “right in the feels”.
Look at the target PC’s Issue and Doubt.
Then come up with something that could embody/represent one or the other in the current situation. This something could interact directly with the PC, or it could happen to someone else, or it could even just happen in the background if it is still clearly visible to the PC. This indirect approach is usually the easiest and most effective option. Either way, describe how the PC “notices” what is going on. And that’s it! Your Reaction is done.
Whether the PC acts on your provocation or ignores it, it will mean something. Take note of it. Ask questions (now or later) about it. Either way, your job as World is fulfilled. This Reaction often produces something interesting to talk about during the End of Session move, which gives the Player a chance to mark a Growth, and you a chance to better understand what pushes the Player’s buttons.
|PC Issue = the king’s tyranny
World - While you flirt with the innkeeper’s son you notice two royal guards. They look drunk and bored and about to give a hard time to an old man sitting by the hearth. What do you do?
|PC Issue = the king’s tyranny
World - While you flirt with the innkeeper’s son you notice two royal guards that, drunk and bored, are harassing an old man sitting by the hearth. What do you do?
|PC Doubt = what if others get hurt because of my actions?
World - You have no difficulty overpowering the thug, but suddenly you notice his accomplice taking one of the bystanders hostage: “Surrender or I’ll cut her a new smile!”
|PC Doubt = what if others get hurt because of my actions?
World - You have no difficulty overpowering the thug, but suddenly you notice his accomplice slashing a bystander, leaving them on the ground, alive but badly bleeding, just before speeding towards the nearby maze of back-alleys.
Show Signs of Trouble
Use this Reaction to raise tension and to set up future Reactions: don’t show a beast, but traces of the beast’s presence; don’t describe an ambush, but tell the PCs they feel observed or followed or like there is tension in the air; don’t have a tragedy happen here and now, but bring word of a tragedy happening somewhere else, or that threatens to happen in the (near?) future.
You can also use this Reaction to help you Think Offscreen Too: divert your attention away from the situation at hand and instead ponder the story so far as a whole for a moment. Imagine some sort of “Meanwhile...” situation that has happened, is happening, or will happen somewhere else. Make a note of it, and maybe advance or create an Hourglass to track its progress. Finally, be sure to show signs of it as soon as possible, ideally within the current scene or the next one.
Of all the Reactions, Showing Signs of Trouble is probably the most difficult to clearly distinguish between its Open and Closed versions. Fortunately, it’s also the one that causes the least trouble when accidentally mishandled. In a way, you can’t go wrong. Just be mindful of what you are supposed to do mechanically, and then narrate what comes easier and more naturally.
|World - The door is old damp wood, so if the dugbar rats start chewing on it, it won’t last more than a few minutes. What do you do?
|World - The dugbar rats are chewing through the door and will enter any minute now. What do you do?
|World - You scare the thugs away but their boss shouts “This is not over! You hear me? This is not over!”
[Hourglass : [tension with the Red Capes]
|World - You notice a tattoo on the smuggler’s neck... it’s the same the Red Capes wear! But the smuggler notices you noticing, and his expression changes - eyes darting towards a patch of darkness to the right, deeper in the alleyway. What do you do?
|World - The king invites you to stay at court, but you notice how various courtesans seem inexplicably tense about it. What do you do? Do you accept the offer?
|World - The king invites you to stay at court, but before you can say anything you recognise a face in the crowd of courtesans and dignitaries: the Duke of Lanverse is looking at you with hostility. It’s obvious he doesn’t want you at court. What do you do? Do you accept the offer?
Highlight a Downside
This Reaction has less to do with thwarting or limiting the Protagonists’ actions, and more to do with having things Make Sense and with Rocking the Boat. Simply look at the Tags present in the current situation and describe (highlight) how one is, or could be, problematic. Look at the Protagonists’ Equipment, their Blood or Kin or Class, their harm effects or any other environmental Tag present.
Alternatively, you might sometimes create a new Tag to represent the effects of a specific circumstance on a person, object, or location. When you do so, write it down and communicate it to the Players.
|World - If you let them get closer, the goblins will be too close for you to use your [huge] dragon-slayer sword. What do you do?
|World - The goblins are too close for you to use your [huge] dragon-slayer sword. What do you do instead?
|World - You are about to talk to the inn-keeper about the steep prices when you notice how everyone in the room seems to give you the stink-eye, and you even overhear someone mutter “[half-blood] scum” under their breath. What do you do?
|World - You start haggling for a better price at the tavern when the inn-keeper brusquely interrupts you, spits on the floor, and says “You know what? We don’t have rooms for [half-blood] scum like you. Piss off!” What do you do?
|World - A villager throws a tomato at you, nothing serious. But when your [wolf companion] sees you get hit by something and then start dripping red, she starts growling and tensing up, ready to jump at the assailant’s throat. What do you do?
|World - A villager throws a tomato at you, nothing serious. But when your [wolf companion] sees you get hit by something and then start dripping red, she growls and jumps at the assailant’s throat. What do you do?
Show an Opportunity
Reactions are all about having stuff happen that will change the situation and move events along. Showing an Opportunity allows the World to lead Protagonists towards an interesting direction without forcing their hand, or avoid a situation from stalling, or present juicy hard choices. It is a direct expression of Being a Fan.
Some opportunities might have a catch of some kind: "here is an opportunity but...". Be honest and forthcoming about it. An informed hard choice is always better than a startling sucker punch. At times the Players might consider your imagined catch as trivial, but this is not a problem. Make a note of this to help you learn what the PCs/Players care about or not, what makes them tick, what engages them.
Not all opportunities need to have a catch. Instead, they can provide an easy way out, a moment of respite, a tempting chance. These things are incredibly valuable to the World, helping you get out of three common problematic situations:
- The Players are stuck or cornered, with little idea of what to do next.
- A tense situation, often a fight or a chase, drags on too long, losing steam and interest.
- A long string of bad rolls makes it difficult for the World to come up with reasonable or interesting negative outcomes.
In all these cases, showing an opportunity is your easy way out, seamlessly and elegantly pushing things forward without feeling unpleasant for the Players. No cheating to save them, no railroading to force them; just Show them an opportunity and let them make their choices.
|World - The stone golem is beating you badly while your weapons clink on its rock-hard skin, ineffective. But if you manage to lure it more to the left while fighting, its position should shift away from the door enough to leave it unobstructed. What do you do?
|World - The stone golem is beating you badly while your weapons clink on its rock-hard skin, ineffective. But while fighting its position has shifted a bit away from the door, which is now unobstructed. What do you do?
|World - The guards seem hostile, but from what you’ve gathered of the situation you think that by snitching on the farmer’s hiding place the guards might be persuaded to let you go. What do you do?
|World - The guards’ chieftain says “Tell us where the farmer is hiding and we’ll let you go... or we’ll arrest you in his stead.” What do you do?
|Player - Evart raises his hands in defeat: “And how are we supposed to get the Jade Monkey? We’re stuck!”
World - Maybe the merchant near the river could help? You remember how his stall was full of precious gems and little statues, and how he seemed to conduct himself in a very shady way. What do you do?
|Player - Evart raises his hands in defeat: “And how are we supposed to get the Jade Monkey? We’re stuck!”
World - While debating what to do, you hear a knocking at the door. It’s a child that, with a face both very serious and cute, says: “My master has heard of your predicament and would like to make you an offer. Please follow me.” What do you do?
Reveal an Unwelcome Truth
When the Protagonists try to acquire information and something triggers a World Reaction, you should always give them bad news rather than no news. They “succeed” but what they get is not what they expected or hoped for. Or, as a consequence of any kind of action, your Reaction can be to suddenly reveal a startling or problematic detail. In any case, when revealing new info about something, consider if it could be expressed as a Tag. If so, write it down and communicate it to the Protagonists.
Whether Open or Closed, an unwelcome truth is always unwelcome. But an Open unwelcome truth is just hearsay, gossip, a possibility to be confirmed, or maybe something vague that still needs clarification. This means that future play events might reveal the “final truth” to be different than initially revealed or expected. Conversely, a Closed unwelcome truth is a proven fact.
|World - Yes, you remember the arcane formula to open the portal, but it requires some kind of cost or sacrifice that you are not sure about. Using the wrong one could have unexpected effects. What do you do?
|World - Yes, you easily remember the arcane formula to open the portal, but it requires the willing sacrifice of one’s eye. What do you do?
|World - You remember stories about the regenerative powers of this kind of creature. Your blade might not be enough to see you through a confrontation. What do you do?
|World - You slash at the creature and see its blood spray high, the flesh rent and the bone broken. But an instant later you also see it heal back as if nothing had happened. Only a thin black line to show where you cut it. The creature smiles at you with malevolence. What do you do?
|World - Yes, you manage to stalk the assassin and catch a glimpse of the face under the hood. It looks like a young woman. Is she your friend’s daughter? You can’t yet tell for sure. What do you do?
|World - Yes, you reach the assassin, pull them to the ground, and tear the hood away from their face revealing... a young woman who you recognise. She’s your friend’s daughter! What do you do?
Take Away Their People
This Reaction can be used literally, allowing NPCs to capture someone. But it can also be used more subtly by somehow preventing cooperation between characters, maybe because they can’t see or hear their allies, or because something separates them (distance, crowds, doors, time, etc).
|World - If you hold position here, no creature will get through, but in the commotion, Amara might be dragged away into the treeline. What do you do?
|World - You hold position and no creature gets through, but in the commotion, Amara is dragged away into the treeline. What do you do?
|World - The plaza is so full of people that, once you get into it, you and Cartig might be unable to communicate clearly over the din of merchants and traffic. What do you do?
|World - Wait, the plaza is so full of people that you and Cartig are unable to hear each other over the din of merchants and traffic. What do you do instead?
|World - If you go back now Darlon might not be there, probably still out hunting. What do you do?
|World - The place is deserted. Darlon must still be out hunting. What do you do?
Take Away Their Stuff
You can use this Reaction to give weight and meaning to the passing of time by describing how some item or resource gets depleted, used up, or consumed. Torches, food, special ammunition are all good candidates. You can introduce a new problematic element by describing how something steals or ruins equipment and Supplies.
Pests eating or fouling rations, street urchins pickpocketing valuables, creatures reacting badly to some item's smell or presence.
You can give relevance to the environment by describing how the Protagonists need to sacrifice something in order to survive/traverse the world around them, or how an external condition makes some of their equipment temporarily unusable.
Dampness might make torches useless, flammable gases or dust in the air might make torches dangerous, thick vegetation might make big weapons unwieldy and mounts or vehicles useless and problematic.
A more direct and proactive option is also to describe some NPC or environmental condition literally taking something from the Protagonists. A skilled opponent might disarm them, a careless action might make them lose grip on an important item, etc. Or more figuratively, something could take away their sight (darkness, sand in the eyes, a sudden flash), their hearing (a noisy crowd, a nearby explosion, a violent ear-slap), their balance, or anything else you can imagine could be “taken” from them given the fictional circumstances.
In any of the previous cases, you can decide that the fictional situation also translates into a mechanical consequence, be it reducing the level of Supplies of any affected Protagonist, losing access to a Tag, or imposing a new one.
|World - Yes, you can wait throughout the night, but it’ll cost you a bunch of torches (and a level of Supplies). What do you do?
|World - You’ve waited through the night and it has cost you quite a few torches. Lower your Supplies. Now, what do you do?
|World - You recognize these mushrooms. If you camp here, they will surely invade your food rations, ruining a level of Supplies. What do you do?
|World - Your food rations have been ruined by toxic mushrooms. Lower your Supplies. What do you do now?
|World - The thug tries to kick sand in your eyes to [blind] you. What do you do?
|World - The thug [blind]s you by kicking sand in your eyes. What do you do?
Turn Their Move Back on Them
When a PC rolls a Snag (1-6) you can imagine one of the NPCs present in the scene performing the same move against the Protagonists as if a 10+ was rolled. Apply the move outcome as if you were a Player maneuvering their Protagonist, asking and answering as needed. In so doing, keep a few critical points in mind:
- Never freestyle new mechanical effects to represent a “turned” move. If you can’t easily Turn their move back on them in the manner explained above, then just don’t.
- Never use this Reaction to "turn" the Brawl move back on an acting PC.
- Remember the rules about Dis/Advantage applied to NPCs, as explained in section 3 of chapter 2.
- If the only effect of the move is to grant info to the NPC, have them immediately act on it.
|World - You observe the angry crowd (Look Around) but you notice some of them trying to have a good look at you too. What do you do about it?
|World - You observe the angry crowd (Look Around) but the crowd scrutinises you too! Who among your group is the most vulnerable in this situation? And what is the best way past you and your allies?
|World - You point your sword at the sailor’s throat (Threaten) but in doing so you notice her trying to slip a knife near your private parts. What do you do?
|World - You point your sword at the sailor’s throat (Threaten) but then you feel pressure near your private parts. As you realise where her knife is pointing, she says “Drop YOUR weapon, or else!” Do you cave, or force her hand?
|World - Maybe you know something about goblins (Recall Lore) but surely goblins know a lot about your people and they seem to be on the verge of doing something that you don’t believe would be pleasant. What do you do?
|World - Maybe you know something about goblins (Recall Lore) but surely goblins know a lot about your people. Say, what kind of insult would make a person of your Blood or Kin go absolutely nuts? Ah... interesting... that is exactly what the goblins start chanting! What do you do?
This Reaction lets you describe something that can cause harm to one or more characters, be they PCs or NPCs. To do so you never just state a level of harm (Calladan takes Serious harm) but instead:
- Describe a fictional action, event, or situation you think could cause harm.
- Openly follow the procedures for harm adjudication (chapter 2 section 5).
- Have each victim of harm choose and apply its effects.
- The Players do it for their PCs.
- The World does it for their NPCs.
Inflicting harm on a Protagonist is a common option, but far from the only one available to you.
- Make violence indiscriminate
Players expect the World to damage their Protagonists, and are somewhat ready for it. Instead, try to often hurt their friends and allies, hurt innocent bystanders, hurt the land and the buildings and the objects around them.
- Make violence matter
Players expect everyone to select the tamest harm effects when given the chance. When PCs suffer harm, this is their prerogative. But when NPCs suffer harm, you decide: show that there is no such thing as “moderate” violence by having the NPCs faint, bleed, vomit, cry ... ruin them.
Proper use of this Reaction touches on many Principles and Agendas.
- Kill Your Darlings Mercilessly to shock Players out of complacency, using NPCs to show what could happen to their PCs if they are not careful.
- Kill Your Darlings Mercilessly to reward Players for their efforts and to Be a Fan of their Protagonists, felling NPCs when it is the most fun and appropriate, instead of dragging the action into endless attrition.
- Make Sense by showing the consequences of dangerous actions.
- Be a Fan by hurting the Protagonists and the people they care about enough to make life challenging.
- Be a Fan by refraining from hurting them without a fair warning and a chance to intervene.
Inflicting harm can often mean something different than broken bones and bloodstains. Think about inflicting harm of a social nature, or mental, spiritual, metaphysical, etc. Do this by creating and assigning Tags such as [bad reputation] or [brokenhearted] or [unstuck in time] or [addicted to giggleberries]. This is also a very effective way to handle damage suffered by places, structures, and items.
“Old” harm can also be leveraged to great effect. You could inflict new harm by describing how previous effects are getting worse: describe what this worsened state looks and feels like, then adjudicate harm as usual. Or you could avoid new harm and instead use a different Reaction to simply Highlight a Downside of their wounds and ailments, or anyway leverage a current harm effect as fictional positioning to justify other interesting Reactions.
|World - You notice an archer pointing their bow at Timo, the guide you hired. They are about to let the arrow fly. What do you do?
|World - Timo, the guide you hired, sits down with a heavy thump, an arrow protruding from his chest. What do you do?
|Player - I jump onto the next roof.
World - Ok, you are aware that the strain might Seriously mess with your recent wound. What do you do?
|World - You jump to the next roof but, upon landing, you feel a terrible pain in your side, your shirt quickly reddening. Yesterday’s wound must have ripped open and now Seriously hurts.
Player - Damn! Being all bloody and shaky I guess I now look like a mess [Temp effect]. And yeah, the pain impedes me actively [Serious effect].
|World - These marauders don’t seem like the sophisticated type. Using words instead of violence might be seen as weakness. What do you do?
|World - The marauders laugh at your speech but in doing so they also seem to abandon their hostile intentions. Afterward, though, you hear them calling you [Sir Big Mouth] behind your back.
Put them at a Disadvantage
Just like inflicting harm requires you to describe an action or event which explicitly causes the harm that will be suffered, this Reaction also requires you to first and foremost describe actions, events, and circumstances that obviously cause the Disadvantage that will hinder the Protagonists. Always offer a clear source for the Disadvantage, as it is an easy way to offer meaningful and sometimes hard choices without much effort on your part.
Never say “you get Disadvantage”.
Always say something like “The wind is devilishly strong, it might make things difficult” and then if the PCs ignore it “So you do it anyway? Cool, but now you are at a Disadvantage”.
|World - A storm is raging outside. Following the tracks of the beast will not be easy and may put you at a Disadvantage. What do you do?
|World - Following the trail of the beast in the middle of the storm is not easy. You manage to do it, but with Disadvantage.
|World - Ramovar is very skilled and in an honest duel you would be at a Disadvantage. What do you do?
|World - Dueling with Ramovar, you realize his remarkable skill. You are at an obvious Disadvantage. What do you do?
|World - It is clear that you could make yourself understood but, not speaking the language well, you would be at a Disadvantage in a debate. What do you do?
|World - You are making yourself more or less understood but, not speaking the language well, you often stumble into mistakes and misunderstandings that put you at a Disadvantage. What do you do?
Make an Agent Reaction
Every typology of Agent (chapter 4 section 5) is associated with a unique list of Reactions specifically designed to express and showcase the Agent’s unique features and behaviors.
Agent Reactions tend to be more specific variations of normal World Reactions expressed in the form of a fictional effect, action, or situation, like “Someone withdraws and seeks isolation”. As usual, the Reaction text is meant to both inspire and limit, guiding you in interpreting it in the way that best fits the fictional situation you are reacting to.
Don’t try to memorise all the possible Agent Reactions. Instead, make a habit of doing as you already do for the normal World Reactions: quickly browsing the list of Reactions to see if anything catches your eye.
Fictional Tags (chapter 2 section 2) are a powerful and versatile tool in the World’s hands. They are useful both in handling PCs and NPCs, but also all other sorts of things including Agents, as we’ll soon see.
The harm system is pretty much a highly structured and very specific Tag architecture. By using Tags to represent non-standard effects and statuses, you can effortlessly cover most situations in a way that is still compatible with the overall rules: thus a character could be tagged as being [poisoned] or as being afflicted by the [green Pox], or as being [starving] or [freezing]. Positive Tags are possible too, highlighting how a character is [blessed] or [chosen] or [in love].
Tags can be used to make a character’s reputation more substantial. Being [feared] or [beloved] or a [drunken fool] will see the NPCs behave in a way that reflects that reputation. Being considered a [snitch] rather than [trustworthy] can have very concrete in-game consequences,etc.
Tags can be improvised on the fly, or they can be prepared beforehand in order to have them represent a specific group of things the World deems useful to have at the ready. Some Equipment Tags follow this principle, and Steadings are another example.
A Steading is a community of people organized in some form of orderly civilization, which is a thing the World often has to deal with in handling the emergent game setting. Some elements that are commonly useful to define are:
The main Tag, representing the overall size:
- [hamlet] - a settlement of just a few houses sharing and bartering their few resources.
- [village] - a small and close-knit community with limited resources and services.
- [town] - a medium-sized know-by-sight community with basic trade and a simple economy.
- [city] - a big and loose community with inner sub-groups, decent traffic, and trade.
- [capital] or [metropolis] - a sprawling center of population and activity made up of distinct areas, full of traffic and opportunities.
Additional Tags could go deeper into describing specific characteristics of a Steading:
- Its level of prosperity [scanty, poor, moderate, wealthy].
- The state of its population [collapsing, shrinking, growing, booming].
- Its military capabilities [militians, troopers, regiment, army].
- Any number of other interesting details [elven, historical, lawless, safe, etc.].
4.5 - Prep & Agents
What happens in Fantasy World between the first and second sessions, and then again between all the following sessions, is called preparation or just “prep”. Beware that this prep work is radically different from the classic concept of “planning a campaign” or even that of “preparing an adventure”.
Do not pre-plan a story.
Do not pre-arrange a series of encounters.
Instead, what you do in order to Play to Find Out is to use all the notes and ideas produced at the table in previous sessions, add your own ideas and questions, and organize it all in such a way as to create a dynamic and unstable situation surrounding the Protagonists.
The main tools for this job are the Agents Map and all the various Agents you will note on it.
What is an Agent?
An Agent is a tool, something or someone that the World uses to depict an environment that Makes Sense, to Rock the Boat by shaking things up, and bring a specific theme to the fore.
An Agent is not necessarily adverse or dangerous to the Protagonists. An Agent acts of its own accord and volition, out of the Protagonists’ control. That’s all it is and all it does. Sometimes it will provide help and opportunities. Sometimes it will provide opposition and adversity. Sometimes it will just shift things around in a way that isn’t obviously good or bad.
There are three critical concepts to the creation and use of Agents:
- Everything is an Agent.
- Everything is People.
- Everything is Prep.
Everything is an Agent
An Agent is everything and everyone that is interesting and relevant in the world surrounding the Protagonists.
The people they meet. Their enemies, sure. But also the folks in a village, a memorable barkeep, a named beggar, a dashing traveler. And the PCs’ companions and allies too! The Wayfarer’s animal, the Occultist’s familiar, any henchmen, helper, or follower. A Protagonist’s friends and family, that one-night lover, the old battle comrade.
The creatures they encounter. The animals living in a wild area, the monsters lurking in the dark, the inhabitants of the deep sea, that strange flower that grows everywhere in this region.
The places they visit. The ancient ruins they are exploring, the silent forest they are journeying through, the big city that lies to the west, the creepy house on the hill, the surreal palace hidden at the heart of the swamp.
The items they find. A magical sword, a cursed ring, an arcane tome, an infamous ship, a legendary map; any item that could make things happen around it, either because it is the focus of desires and plots, or because of unique characteristics both magical and mundane.
Everything is People
The easiest and most effective way to create and manage Agents that make sense and feel memorable, is to handle everything as if it were people. And when you do, stick to portraying Simple People (chapter 4 section 3): find a striking physical feature and use it as a guide to formulate a simple and straightforward motivation.
Treat animals, monsters, and other living creatures as people.
Treat places, items, and even environmental conditions (such as a plague or a storm) as if they were people.
If something is relevant enough to become an Agent and appear on the Agents Map, then it is people: it has needs and desires, it has behaviors and attitudes, it takes actions according to them, and because you always portray Simple People, these elements are (at least in the World’s eyes) simple and straightforward too.
Creatures are People
A giant black spider sports a streak of white hair that looks a bit like a punk mohawk. When you then wonder how to play and React as the spider, you can just think "what would a punk look and behave like?"
Places are People
A river has big curves and slow waters that make you think of the round belly of a jolly fat man. When you then wonder how to play and React as the river, you can just think "what would a jolly fat man look and behave like?"
Items are People
A mundane and 100% not-magical jewelry box is for some reason interesting enough to be developed into an Agent. You look for a striking feature and decide that it has a lid that is a bit broken and jagged, and that this makes you think of teeth, like those of an animal.
But you need a person!
So, to what kind of person could those animalistic teeth belong? An aggressive person, baring their teeth in anger? A sinister person, grinning in a creepy way? A happy simpleton, flashing a craggy smile without realising how menacing it could look?
Whatever your choice, when you then wonder how to play and React as the jewelry box, you can just think "what would that person look and behave like?"
To Agent or not to Agent?
Every "thing" in the game that gets described at the table is, with the exception of the Protagonists themselves, part of the World's prep: people, beasts, places, items, etc.
In most cases, such entities only exist in the form of a passing mention. Then the more they become interesting, important, or even just recurring, the more they acquire substance and detail. The World will simply jot down these details for the sake of remembering them: a proper name, a "body" part characterizing and leading them, maybe a brief description of their appearance, their role, or their relation to something else-whatever helps the World know what to say when the entity enters a scene, interacts with the Protagonists, or is supposed to do something off-screen.
If the World feels that these simple notes are enough, then they are. All prep exists as a way to help the World organize ideas and info to use in active play. Nothing more.
So while everything can be an Agent, not everything has to be an Agent. Not immediately, at least.
Agents can be created from the bottom up when the World deems that something in their prep is growing into a blob of notes and details. Applying the Agent structure to this blob is a way to better organize the available info, making it clearer and more usable.
Agents can be created from the top down when the World needs something in their prep to immediately have a certain space and importance in the game. Applying the Agent structure to their raw ideas guides the World through some important questions and choices, shaping the new “thing” into a more defined and tangible game element.
Agents can also change, as they are simply an agglomerate of notes and ideas and details. They can and should be routinely updated as the game goes on. The World always has to say what Prep and Honesty demand (chapter 4 section 2), but this still leaves plenty of room for Agents to evolve, grow, shrink, or simply be abandoned because along the way the World felt like bringing some different ideas to the table. In the end, Agents are, like everything else in this chapter, a structure that the game uses to help the World organize their notes and ideas.
At first, the World mentions the existence of a local bounty hunter. It's a throwaway detail of no importance.
When the group meets this person, or when they express the will to meet them, the World decides that she is a woman, that her name is Karis, and that her leading body parts are her agile and ever-moving fingers.
This seems to be enough for a while. But then the World decides that Karis should be defined as an Agent. This gives her (as explained in the following section) a Type, an Impulse, a list of Reactions, maybe some Fate questions, maybe a Cast, etc.
Later on, the World feels like updating Karis' Agent profile. Maybe the initial idea seemed cool on paper but felt wrong or unwieldy in play. Maybe game events suggest a change or evolution of the character and her situation.
The Players might never know about these technical changes, as they are not privy to the World's notes and prep. The only thing they "see" are the changes in how Karis is portrayed by the World.
Secrecy vs Privacy
Prep is meant to be kept private, but not secret.
Private, because by Draping the Rules in Fiction the World's notes will not be visible to the Players. To the Protagonists, an NPC (like Karis, the bounty hunter from the previous example) is just a person they meet.
But there is no need for secrecy. If the Players do happen to see the World's notes it won't be a big deal. Knowing that Karis is a basic named NPC rather than a more fleshed-out Agent makes no difference whatsoever. Knowing that her Type is Power rather than Freak, or that her main Fate is about her social status rather than her love life, are more telling details, but none of them will mean anything relevant, as the World might bring them into play in ways that defy the Players’ expectations. Or not! The game won't be ruined anyway. Nothing of relevance will be spoiled.
As everyone plays to find out, there are no future events set in stone. Even seeing the details of currently active Hourglasses won't be a real problem, as they simply organize possible future events that the World should have already communicated as being on the horizon.
Creating an Agent
To create an Agent of any kind you need to:
- Give a NAME to the Agent, then describe it.
- If it has a CAST, list it.
- Choose a TYPE and copy over its IMPULSE.
- If it has CONNECTIONS to other Agents, list them.
- If you have FATE questions, list them.
- If it calls for an HOURGLASS, create it.
- Place it on the Agents Map and, if it’s in motion, mark its direction with an arrow.
1 - Name & Description
Find a name you can remember easily, then write a quick sentence describing the Agent.
2 - Cast
If the Agent is made up of many elements, list them here. They are important enough to have a name and be listed here, but not relevant enough (yet) to be a whole Agent of their own. They could be the most notable faces within a village, the many places and areas that are part of a bigger landscape, or a few important items that stand out among the other possessions of an Agent.
3 - Type, Subtype & Impulse
Once you have an idea of what an Agent is and what it looks like you can identify its Type. To do so you need to think about the one important thing this Agent should represent.
The same Agent could reasonably fit multiple Types, so a choice has to be made. Always pick just one Type, the one that most interests you at the moment. Later in the game, when you review and update the Agents Map and its elements, it is ok to change an Agent’s Type to fit the current and evolving circumstances. The five available Types are:
Each Agent is then put into focus by selecting one out of six available Subtypes that are specific to each different Type. Every Subtype is also linked to a unique Impulse. This structure helps the World to organize and then use all the Agents that will play a role in the story, decide which ones to use, how they will behave, and why.
Lastly, each Type of Agent offers a shortlist of Agent Reactions.
They work exactly like the more general World Reactions, but are simpler and more direct, often expressing a straightforward “this thing happens”. Use them to bring the Agent to the fore and to showcase their unique characteristics.
This Agent represents the actions people take because they are exposed to something bad that afflicts them. Different afflictions push people to behave in different ways, so ask yourself: how has the Affliction changed people’s lives? What are they pushed to do? How do they feel about it? How do their actions change the world around them? Is there a way out or back?
Choose one Subtype of Affliction:
- Barrier | Impulse to isolate and impoverish.
- Belief | Impulse to control choices and actions.
- Disease | Impulse to expand and saturate.
- Hardship | Impulse to expose people to danger.
- Sacrifice | Impulse to leave people bereft.
- Tradition | Impulse to promote and justify violence.
- ... neglects duties, responsibilities, obligations.
- ... flies into a rage.
- ... takes self-destructive, fruitless, or hopeless action.
- ... approaches, seeking help or comfort
- ... withdraws, seeking isolation
- ... proclaims the Affliction to be a deserved punishment
- ... proclaims the Affliction to be, in truth, a blessing
- ... refuses or fails to adapt to new circumstances
- ... brings friends or loved ones along
This Agent represents a group of people, with or without a leader, acting in concert. What you define here is the group’s Impulse, how people behave as part of a mob/pack/swarm, but individuals within the group might not share its Impulse and might even fight against it.
Choose one Subtype of Brutes:
- Cult | Impulse to incorporate people.
- Enforcers | Impulse to victimize who stands out.
- Family | Impulse to close ranks, protect their own.
- Hedonists | Impulse to consume resources.
- Hunter Pack | impulse to victimize anyone vulnerable.
- Mob | Impulse to riot, burn, kill scapegoats.
- ... bursts out in uncoordinated, undirected violence.
- ... takes coordinated action with a coherent objective.
- ... tells stories (truth, lies, allegories, homilies).
- ... demands consideration or indulgence.
- ... rigidly follows or defies authority.
- ... clings to or defies reason.
- ... makes a show of solidarity and power.
- ... asks for help or for someone’s participation.
This Agent represents a person that acts primarily through other people, be it through direct control and command or through subtle influence and maneuvering. Use Powers to portray strong individuals at the heart of big and small groups, institutions, and networks. A queen, a gang leader, a well-connected innkeeper, an ambitious villager.
Choose one Subtype of Power:
- Alpha | Impulse to hunt and dominate.
- Collector | Impulse to own and acquire.
- Conqueror | Impulse to consume and overrun.
- Dictator | Impulse to control and organize.
- Prophet | Impulse to denounce and overthrow.
- Slaver | Impulse to own and sell people.
The power uses someone else to...
- ... outflank, corner or encircle someone.
- ... attack someone suddenly, directly, and very hard.
- ... attack someone cautiously, holding reserves.
- ... seize someone/thing for leverage or information.
- ... make a show of force or discipline.
- ... negotiate or demand obedience.
- ... claim territory: move into it, blockade it, assault it.
- ... buy out someone’s allies.
- ... attack someone where they’re weak.
This Agent represents someone or something out of the ordinary. A very talented person, a particularly ferocious beast, a patch of barren land, a book about a disturbing or forbidden subject. Use Freaks to highlight a different point of view, its origins, its relationship with the surrounding “normal”, to face the PCs with an “other”.
Choose one Subtype of Freak:
- Abomination | Impulse to bring chaos and ruin.
- Devourer | Impulse to feed and to have more.
- Disease | Impulse to touch, invade, be intimate.
- Fiend | Impulse to feel or inflict pain.
- Portent | Impulse to excel, to be above others.
- Victim | Impulse to seek reparation or retribution.
- ... shows the nature of the world it inhabits.
- ... shows the contents of its heart.
- ... appears as part of someone’s day, life, or path.
- ... ruins, befouls, rots, desecrates, corrupts something.
- ... takes away or threatens something cherished.
- ... insults, offends, or provokes someone.
- ... attacks someone stealthily.
- ... lashes out, head-on, without threat or warning.
- ... offers a service, with strings attached.
This Agent represents how the environment itself can be a character in a story. A Landscape can be natural or constructed, vast or small. The lands of Ansalon, the spider forest, the ruins of Kal’taher, the city of Brittlewood, the sewers, the market, the house on the hill, a dungeon.
Choose one Subtype of Landscape:
- Breeding Pit | Impulse to generate badness.
- Fortress | Impulse to deny access.
- Furnace | Impulse to consume things.
- Maze | Impulse to discourage passage and to entrap.
- Mirage | Impulse to entice and betray.
- Prison | Impulse to contain and deny release.
- ... presents difficult or dangerous terrain.
- ... bars or opens the way.
- ... reveals a different path.
- ... shifts, moves, rearranges.
- ... presents a guide or a guardian.
- ... presents a predator or prey.
- ... disgorges something.
- ... shows a glimpse of beauty.
- ... shows a glimpse of savagery.
4 - Connections
List here other Agents you consider closely related to this one. This helps you keep everything under control, and to remember which Agents might be present or relevant whenever something happens to one of their connections.
5 - Fate
The World must not pre-plan the future destiny of their Agents. You can instead express questions about uncertain outcomes you are curious about:
- Will this one NPC survive?
- Will the blood stone be found?
- Will this other NPC get home in time?
- Will the village ask for help?
- Will the army invade the western lands?
Fate questions can be big or small in scope, regarding the future of a whole country or a single NPC, but they must never be trivial. The answer to a Fate question will bring change to the Agent, or the world around it, in a deep and important way. This is one way to Ask Honest Questions, taking the things you are the most interested in out of your hands, allowing you to Play to Find Out.
6 - Hourglasses
Another way for the World to bring their ideas to the table and explore what might happen without fixing future events is to attach an Hourglass to an Agent.
An Hourglass is a countdown with six positions. At each position, the World jots down a note on how the Agent, or a situation involving it, will behave and progress. It is also ok to leave some positions empty, to have events progress more slowly, or to leave room for future inspiration.
Hourglasses are both descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive, because when something that you have noted happens in the fiction, then you must advance the relevant Hourglasses to the appropriate position. Prescriptive, because when a Reaction makes you advance an Hourglass to a new position, then you must also describe how the noted behavior or event happens in the fiction.
Be sure to only write down things that have to do with your Agents and how they change the world around them:
- Never dictate PC actions
“Zoltan the Troubadour sings in the plaza in front of the king”.
- Never depend on PC actions
“When Zoltan the Troubadour sings in the plaza, the king notices him”.
You might be tempted to use PC actions to trigger events, like “if Zoltan sings in the plaza then X happens”, but I strongly advise against this. If the event does not happen, you prepared stuff for nothing. And the fact that you have a specific outcome in mind will influence your play in a way that might make you "push" more than you should, stifling your ability to Play to find out. In a word, it's an unhealthy practice that can lead to bad game behaviors.
An Hourglass can be set up right at the moment of Agent creation, to help you visualize what you already know is going on, or it can be added later, as events unfold and the situation changes. Hourglasses are just a way for the World to organize their notes, so if something happens that changes the fiction enough to make an Hourglass no longer current or even needed, feel free to modify it or scratch it completely.
Tracing and Using an Hourglass
The simplest way to trace an Hourglass by hand is to draw two triangles, one pointing downward and one pointing upward, with their respective “pointing” vertices intersecting. Then run a straight vertical line down the middle, splitting it into two halves. This leaves you with a shape divided into six spaces. Check the pictures in the following example to get a clearer idea of the final result.
You can fill the spaces however you like, there is no fixed order, it’s just an evocative way to keep track of a six-step countdown in a fantasy game. I personally like to follow the imaginary movement of sand in the Hourglass, slowly filling it from bottom to top, with my six annotations being written beside it ordered accordingly, from bottom to top. But the only important thing is that you are clear on what comes first, second, third, etc.
Example of Hourglass
|6 - PCs are officially regional outlaws
5 - PCs are officially local outlaws
4 - regional authorities start nosing around
3 - villagers pursue the PCs
2 - villagers are hostile
1 - villagers are resentful
Affliction - Tradition - Impulse to promote and justify violence
Sharpleaf is a small village of hunters in the Great Forest. The PCs ruined their sacred garden, Fane (the Wayfarer's wolf) seriously wounded one villager and escaped fair justice only thanks to Kayman (the Occultist) and his threatening magic. The locals want the PCs to pay for this.
Demetrios O'Brien, village chief [clean face].
The villagers believe themselves to be cursed by the desecration - what will they do to fix this?
Demetrios is demanding justice from the Royal Guard - what will happen?
6 - PCs are officially regional outlaws
5 - PCs are officially local outlaws
4 - regional authorities start nosing around
3 - villagers pursue the PCs
2 - villagers are hostile
1 - villagers are resentful
7 - The Agents Map
This is the World’s master plan where all the moving pieces of the game are gathered. In a way, it is “just” a list of names, but its structure helps the World focus on what is important, the current situation, and where it might lead. It is, in a nutshell, one possible way to organize the World’s game notes.
World’s preparation work and campaign building are all about updating the Agents Map in the time between one session and the next. Think about the characters, places, and events of the last session; if needed, translate them into Agents and position them on the map. Go over what was already on the map: should the Agents be moved? Changed? Evolved? Destroyed? Should they slowly fade out of the map as their relevance diminishes? Or could they make a comeback because of recent events? Could they turn into something different?
Truth be told, you do this work in the actual Agent notes. But the Map can help you visualize them all in one place, arranged in meaningful positions. Speaking of which...
The Ring Structure
The Agents Map has a central space meant for the Protagonists and all the Agents that are currently here with them either in a geographical sense (the Agent is at the PCs’ location or in the general area) or in a dramatic sense (the Agent is “closely” influencing the PCs), whichever meaning better serves your current organization.
The ring surrounding the center is where the World writes Agents that are closer to the PCs. The ring surrounding that area is where the farther Agents go. Both of these serve the same purpose as the central ring, just offering the World more space to move things around in an expressive way and avoid amassing everything in the same small location.
Finally, the most external ring is where the whispered Agents go, meaning all the Agents that still only exist as rumours and ideas. These can often be just names that the World has not yet bothered turning into real, fully-written Agents because they are still far away on the fictional horizon.
This all works by always keeping the Protagonists at the center of the map, with everything else moving all around relative to them.
The map then offers additional “directions” that you can use to inform your choices when it comes to positioning Agents and moving them around:
- You have the North, South, West, and East directions. These are useful to represent relative geographical positioning more than anything else.
- You have the Up and Down directions. These can describe physical positioning: high in the mountains, deep underground, flying in the sky, low in a valley, etc. Or social status: being rich or highborn, being poor or lowborn. Or any other concept that the World finds useful to arrange Agents on the map: it could be useful to position an Agent with a good reputation UP, and one with a bad one DOWN.
- You have the In and Out directions. These are the most abstract and are used to position Agents according to how well-known / familiar / overt they are (In) or how obscure / alien / covert they are (Out). An Agent might be operating in the very same area where the PCs are (Here) but without them knowing about it (Out), or they might know about its existence but very little about its true nature and inner workings (Out). Conversely, an Agent might be somehow distant from the PCs (Farther) but they could be particularly familiar with it (In).
Most of the time the World will reassess the scope and meaning of their Agents Map depending on what is the most useful for the game at a given time, often positioning Agents either in a geographical way or an abstract way. At a time when the PCs are traveling across a broad territory, it might be more useful to arrange Agents to offer a more geographical view of the situation. At a time when there is a lot going on in a specific location, be it a small town or a bustling city, it might be more valuable to position Agents according to their social standing, or other abstract factors. And even within the same context, immediate concerns could make some choices more useful than others and help make sense of seemingly conflicting positioning.
The Cult of the Blue Feather is an Agent.
It mainly operates in a cluster of villages located high in the eastern mountains.
When the PCs are still far away from that region, the only relevant element might be that the Agent is Farther to the East.
When later on the PCs arrive in the region, it might be more useful to know that the Agent is Closer and Up in the mountains.
Once the PCs reach the cluster of villages it might make sense to position the Agent Here with the Protagonists and Out, because the cult is very reclusive and it's hard to know anything clear about it.
The Bromies street gang is an Agent.
The gang has its turf in the same town the PCs are currently located, so it might make sense to position the Agent Here.
But maybe the gang is currently just a vague idea in the World's mind, or just gossip the PCs have heard only a couple of times, so it could be positioned in the Whispered ring instead of uselessly crowding the central area.
Or maybe the Agent is real, known, and active, but the game events have veered in a direction that makes the gang an element that is not pressingly relevant, so it could be positioned Closer or even Farther to represent its conceptual distance, again leaving the central area of the map unclogged.
Right between the end of the first session and before the beginning of the second one, the World needs to create a short list of "essential" Agents:
- The place where the Protagonists are, make it a Landscape.
- Every local population present there, make it an Affliction.
- The people in each Protagonist’s life, make them Brutes, Freaks, or Powers. This means any friend, family member, enemy, debtor, etc., but also groups or social institutions.
- For each Protagonist’s Issue and Doubt, find some thing/person/place that could become an Agent.
Beware that you need to stick to the essentials here! Producing a long list of Agents is both useless and draining. This is not your job. Your job is to think hard about what is strictly relevant and turn those things into Agents. You have already played one session, so use that experience to guide your work.
Where are the story events taking place? Not the locations where the PCs came from, nor the place where they theoretically started the story but have already moved away from. Where are they playing now? Are they going to keep on playing there in the second session, or is it obvious that they will almost immediately move on to a different location? Because if that’s the case you might be better off shaping that place as an Agent.
Out of the many people in a Protagonist’s life, which ones are the few that will affect their actions and choices right now? Not those they left behind, nor those they have yet to meet, unless they are somehow acting to get back into the PC’s life, or affecting something the PC cares about enough to influence them here and now. Chances are, the list will count just a handful of individuals, and of those only one or two maybe would be worth turning into Agents at this time.
Issue and Doubt can be difficult to tie to something concrete, especially at the beginning. Having at least one Agent that could somehow tease and prod either the Issue or Doubt of a PC is enough to get things started.
These are the essentials. If you have time, energy, and ideas you can pour more work into defining game elements you think will most probably be actively used in the next session as Agents. But don’t overdo it - limit yourself to just a couple of things. You don’t need an NPC to be an Agent in order to play them in an engaging and effective way. Avoid wasting time on work that is not (yet) needed.
Between each session and the next be sure to get out your Agents Map and look it over, asking yourself a bunch of questions. What has changed? Have any Agents come closer? Have any receded further into the distance? Should any whispers become more tangible? Have any Agents acted or reacted to the world outside the Protagonists' bounds?
Flip through your Agents and update them. Who was killed? Whose Fate questions found answers? Do you have new ones for them? How have their Hourglasses progressed?
Create new Agents for the new notable people, groups, places, and things you’ve introduced in play. In doing so keep a few things in mind:
- Don't look for a story; Agents are all you need.
- Keep your Agents simple; complex stories will naturally emerge from active play.
- Don't hold back for a big reveal; don't breadcrumb events to have them last longer. All your Agents have impulses they should act on and body parts leading them around, so have them act whenever possible!