Sunday, May 27, 2018

What To Do When Bad Things Happen: Failing Forward in Through the Breach

             One of the most frequent mistake RPG gamemasters make is tying the progress of the story to success of a skill roll or challenge. Admittedly, there’s no point in playing a game and having the characters test their skills if the possibility of failure isn’t present. However, unlike the real world, the objective of a TTRPG game is to tell a good, interactive story. If your hapless Bounty Hunter misses his search flip and fails to spot the key clue that solves the mystery, the game stalls and the fun stops as the players begin the “success shuffle,” where everybody takes turn searching or throwing out other possible solutions until eventually you get the result you want, them finding the clue that points them to the killer. The real tragedy of this situation is that the players know what’s going on, and so do you, but the social contract of “the game” makes it so Fatemasters feel like they’re required to go through this grind to do it “right” or to make their players “earn it.”

 Here’s a secret: you aren’t.

If failure isn’t interesting or entertaining, there’s no point in having them fail. No one will have a good time throwing flip after flip at a problem and hoping that one of them will finally be the severe you need to move ahead with the story and get them out of the stall. As such, I will often end up not having a player flip at all if I feel like there’s a bit of information they need for the story, particularly if I know one of the Fated is trained in the relevant skill, or at least tier the amount of information they can require so even on a failure they get something, but the primo information requires a greater degree of success. It’s not worth the risk of having everything grind to a halt. However, that isn’t really a fix all solution, either. If you’re not going to have flips in the game, it’s really just a cooperative storytelling experience rather than playing an RPG. 

Another tool I reach for (and which I’m going to discuss today) is the idea of “Failing Forward” or “Succeeding at a Cost.” In it, when the players fail a flip, you allow the success to occur but penalize them in some way for the failure or introduce a complication to go along with the success. Maybe the clue they were needing from the earlier example is found, but they end up compromising it in some way during the course of finding it. Possibly, they tilt the oil lantern they’re carrying too far forward during the process of picking up the clue and set it and/or the room in which the Fated are searching on fire! In this way, you keep the game’s story going forward but also introduce a negative consequence of flipping badly on the challenge. If they need a particular piece of specialized equipment for a mission that’s not available through normal vendors and fail the check to find somebody who has it, maybe you let them purchase the item from a shady vendor in an alleyway. Later, the Fated discover that the tool in question is stolen or illegal and buying it has put them in trouble with the law. It doesn’t always have to be that dramatic, of course. Maybe they’re looking for someone particular in the city, and the failure puts them in a situation where they find the information they need from their network of informants, but they either put themselves in debt or cancel a debt someone owed to them in the process.

To swing things hard in the other direction, at other times you’ll want to really put the screws to your players for failing at something. Fairly often, the most entertaining TTRPG stories come from situations where the players fail spectacularly and then have to find their way out of trouble. And, after all, this is Malifaux, and Bad Things HappenTM. While avoiding failure on a challenge with no consequence or which will stall the story and hold up the game is a good idea, making it hurt when your players fail at something important is just as important to make sure your players stay invested. The first example I can think of for this in RPG history was the use of critical fumble tables in D&D, an optional rule where you could end up hurting yourself or others when you rolled a 1 on an attack. Most players who’ve used something like this in a game remember the time they lopped off their hand with their own broadsword, or something similarly gruesome. Through the Breach already has some elements of this in place for combat, in the form of the critical damage tables. Not only did you just get shot because you failed your defense flip, now your arm has also gone numb and you can’t grip your weapon anymore. Further, any good Fatemaster will have something designed for Ongoing Challenges as the consequence for the Fated experiencing a Critical Failure. The best versions of this are something that lets the characters have an option to recover, if they can overcome some kind of complication or encounter as a result of their poor flips/efforts. Having the party all die because of some bad flips during an Ongoing Challenge to escape a collapsing cave isn’t a lot of fun, but having the players end up trapped in a side cavern with an angry Grootslang is, and when it’s done they can figure out how to escape the now collapsed tunnel, possibly leading to another whole adventure as they delve deeper into the mountains looking for a second way out.
Perhaps more in keeping with the “Fail Forward” ideology is a mechanism from Cypher System games called the GM Intrusion, wherein the failure happens and the gamemaster uses that opportunity to add a complication that makes things worse. I love this system, and I think having something like this happen when players incur a certain margin of failure on their flips and/or when they throw a Black Joker feels very in keeping with the tone of Through the Breach. When I was playing in a game that featured a Mad Max style boat race/battle royal recently, I flipped the Black Joker for my attack with a pistol at one of the other boats. Not only did I miss, but the Fatemaster ruled that I had accidentally shot the engine of OUR boat, crippling our speed and making it much more difficult to win. You don’t want to throw in TOO many of these (somewhere between 1 and 1 per Fated per session is usually a good benchmark) but they can be a fun way of raising the stakes on your players in unexpected ways and maintaining that feeling of “Why doesn’t anything ever go smoothly?” that is so much a part of the TTRPG experience.

The key analogy is to use failure as a way of making your games more fun, rather than just frustrating. In a lot of ways, playing an RPG like Through the Breach is like doing improv comedy scenes. If the players say “I take an action to move the story along/attack the bad guy/introduce a new element to the game,” but the cards say “Nope, it doesn’t work,” that can kill the action. Your job is to introduce a “No, but…” outcome where the players either don’t solve the problem but have some way to go forward with the story despite this, or they succeed but in a way they didn’t expect and which makes their lives more complicated in the process. Your players may end up groaning at the time, but you’ll hear their thanks when they’re joking with each other later about how they had to save each other’s butts from the near-disaster you unleashed on them.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Quick and the Dead: Designing a new tournament format

               I have been experimenting with a format to try and conduct tournaments of online Malifaux since shortly after I moved to my current locale and realized how few players are nearby. Earlier efforts have led to mixed results. My first thought was to run a league with swiss style pairings. Early on, that looked to be working well. The problems began to creep up after a few rounds, when players started to drop off from lack of interest or motivation to keep playing after a few losses put them in danger of not winning. To address this, I’ve crafted a new ruleset, which I’m calling the Quick and the Dead format. It’s based on the single elimination tournaments that have been held off and on for a while now, particularly in the Gencon finals. I’ll post the ruleset here. My goal is to run a tournament this summer using this set. Any input from the community would be greatly appreciated.

Malifaux Musings Vassalfaux Tournament
The Quick and The Dead

Dates: TBD

Entry: $5 for general public, Free for Patreon supporters

Prizes: TBD

Rules: All rounds of this tournament will follow the Gaining Grounds 2018 ruleset, with the following exceptions:

-Crew Size and Composition: All players will, along with their entry, select a faction which they will play for the entirety of the tournament. Prior to Round 1, after strategies and schemes have been announced, players will construct a 25SS crew led by a henchman to use for their first game.
After round 1 has completed and round 2’s schemes and strategies have been announced, they will use the same crew from round 1 and will hire an additional 10SS worth of models and/or upgrades to it.
After round 2 is completed and round 3’s strats and schemes are announced, players will add a master to their round 2 crew, who will then become the leader. Any upgrades on henchman that are leader only may be switched to the master or discarded at this time. Any additional upgrades for the master must either be purchased from the remaining soulstones in the round 2 crew’s cache or by removing models/upgrades from the round 2 crew. No additional models or upgrades beyond the master or the master’s upgrades may be added.
Finally, after round 3 is completed and round 4’s strategy and schemes have been announced, players will add 15SS worth of models and/or upgrades to the previous round’s crew, bringing the total to 50SS.

-Tournament Format: The Vassalfaux Quick and the Dead tournament will be organized in a single-elimination format. Players will be randomly paired in round 1 into a 16-player bracket, and from that point on pairings will proceed down the bracket. The final winner will be the player at the end of the tournament with the highest overall tournament points, with victory point differential as a first tie-breaker and overall victory points scored as a second tie-breaker. If a player loses a particular round, their entry into the tournament is considered “Dead” and will no longer compile tournament points/differential/victory points. If players tie, both entries are considered “Dead,” and the opponent with which they would have been paired the next round will receive a bye. Those who wish to continue playing with others who are “Dead” will be paired up each round in a swiss style format. TP/Diff/VP will still be recorded for these players, and the one who finishes in first place will receive the “Golden Zombie” award (a mindless zombie painted gold.)  
At the beginning of a round, a strategy, scheme pool, deployment, and vassal map will be posted to the tournament dropbox, the Malifaux Musings facebook group, and into that week’s blog post. Players will then have 2 weeks to construct their crew, deposit it in the tournament dropbox folder, and play their game on Vassal with their opponent. If a game is not completed in that time, and one player can show a good-faith effort to try to schedule the game, the tournament organizer will elect to make the entry of the player responsible for the match not happening “Dead”. If neither player can demonstrate a good-faith effort to organize the game, or if both players made an effort but neither can be found to be responsible for the game not happening, the tournament organizer reserves the right to mark the entry of both players “Dead.” The tournament organizer will make every effort to avoid this outcome, if at all possible.
When a game is complete, players should submit their results to the tournament Dropbox folder, along with a screenshot of the Vassal board with the final score indicated (if possible.) If a rules dispute occurs and neither player can determine the correct ruling, players may either attempt to contact the tournament organizer to resolve the rules dispute immediately or, failing that, save the game, contact the tournament organizer for a ruling, and then resume play at a later date.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Through the Breach Bits: Introducing Soulstory and Presenting Three TTB FM Characters For Your Campaign

In honor of the launch of, to my knowledge, one of if not the first Through the Breach actual play podcast, I decided to go through some random bits and bobs I’ve been tinkering with for the roleplaying game. But before that, let’s mention the thing that inspired this, the Soulstory podcast.
Soulstory is, at first blush a standard Through the Breach game (I haven’t listened to all of them yet. They’ve put out a lot of content in the first couple weeks of life to try and push themselves up on itunes new podcasts ratings.) There are four Fated, whose stats are not currently revealed to the listeners, including a bounty hunter who fancies himself a ladies man, a guild fighter with a dark past, a doctor with PTSD and an ability with fire magic, and a murderer on the run. They are thrown together in the initial game session by being tied to the same mission to cleanse Malifaux rats from the city. If you’ve never heard of an actual-play cast, the crew runs an RPG session and records it before publishing it to the wide world. Some of them can be just raw audio, but SoulStory is edited and produced to make for a smoother listening experience. Also, they’re putting the rules behind the story for the time being, particularly the intricacies of the + and – flip mechanics which can be a bit intimidating for newer players.
I’ve been listening to actual-play pods for a very long time. They’re a good way to hear new adventures and pick up some game mastering tips. Since then, the introduction of the wildly successful Critical Role Dungeons and Dragons show and the advent of twitch streaming has caused them to explode in both quantity and quality, which thrills me to no end. I have been thinking for some time that Wyrd needs a Through the Breach version of these, and had considered throwing my hat in the ring, but ultimately decided that I didn’t have the time or technical knowledge to make it happen. I’m excited, then, to see Soulstory making the first moves into this venue. If you’re interested, go to and give them a listen and, if you like what you hear, give them a rating on itunes or whatever pod rating things are out there.


So, some Through the Breach quick hits. A while ago I started tinkering with ideas to put into a Through the Breach game at some point in the future. As of this writing, most of my time playing the game is spent playtesting upcoming Through the Breach stuff (wait till you see what’s coming in part 4 of the worldwide event, folks. It’s pretty cool.) This, of course, is not something I can write about. Also, Phiasco’s using the rules engine to run a game of Firefly, but that doesn’t always make for great fodder here either. As such, the detritus has collected in a notebook. Time to share some of it with the world.
I’m more of a fan of the Badlands area than Malifaux proper, if I’m being honest. It’s not that I hate the city or anything. More that the frontier is more of a blank slate in which I can paint. That’s the reason for the original creation of my campaign hook, the Phantom Line, being set out there. I’ve since come up with some other stuff from the wilderness I’m workshopping. Here’s what I’ve got so far.

Now imagine they could shapeshift into hawks or...*shudder*...bears 

                  The New Chiricahua is a tribe of Native Americans that relocated to Malifaux to live in the wilderness rather than accept relocation to a reservation. The idea came from one of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History casts called Tears of the Apche, detailing the numerous conflicts the US army came into with that tribe, leading up to the last break-out Geronimo led in the 1880s. I was a little stunned that the Apache were still such a threat even that late in our history, and I was more than a little sad that these knowledgeable frontiersmen and warriors eventually lost simply due to lack of numbers and resources. I wanted to give their story a different ending.
In the history of Malifaux, Neverborn refugees transferred to Earth long in our world’s past through one of the lesser known breaches, intermixing with the native American tribes and crossbreeding with them. Over time, this Neverborn blood has become diluted, with only a few of them showing any inclination towards magic. Some of this was awakened with the opening of the first Great Breach in the 1790s, leading to many of the local tribes regaining some of these latent powers. Still, the Black Powder Wars and the strength of the US army (backed with Guild resources, of course) were more than these Apache rebels could handle. Eventually, led by the famous medicine man Geronimo, the Chiricahua broke out from their reservation and ran into the hills, guided by a vision to a small breach in Arizona near Skeleton Canyon. With the Guild’s troops hot on their heels, they knew their only hope lay in escape. The small breach, however, wasn’t large or stable enough for them to pass through. Seeing this, the ancient leader channeled his life force into a ritual to temporarily force it open, letting his people pass through before he collapsed. The Chiricahua found themselves in an ancient, unknown land, and Geronimo died a free man, saving his people in the process.
Meanwhile, the Chiricahua had to learn to survive in Malifaux. The ancient Badlands are honestly not that different than their homeland, and the awakened magics in their blood helped them to adapt and thrive by channeling the elements or shifting their bodies to take on aspects of the creatures they’d long worshipped. They’ve come into conflict with the Neverborn over time, but have since made an uneasy peace with the locals. Both sides raid each other periodically, but both understand that this is done culturally as part of avoiding escalation to a larger conflict, rather than as inevitable steps towards a battle that would only end in grief for both. They have spent the intervening years making a new home for themselves, and have watched with some trepidation as humans have returned through the “second” breach. Hostilities seem inevitable, and the Chiricahua find themselves trapped between their own species and their erstwhile Neverborn “allies,” trying to find the best ways to survive and protect their new way of life.


Herman Wipple came to Malifaux, a penniless nobody floating from one scheme to the next with no prospects. He soon found himself on the wrong side of some ill-advised investments with the Katanaka Organization, on the run from debt collectors. One evening he found himself in a place that is always welcome to those who are down on their luck but with a glimmer of untapped talent: The Honeypot Casino. After one evening with the good stuff, Wipple could be found standing on a tabletop in the saloon, expounding on the many merits of his particular brands of tonics and snake-oils to a delighted audience until the earliest hours of dawn, and the establishment’s proprietor found himself a new sales opportunity.
The Honeypot is a fantastic way to channel Brilliance into the community of Malifaux, but the outlying towns and districts are another matter. To spread the Hungering Darkness’s influence there, Lynch has taken the man into his employ and given him a store of the drug to peddle in the contract towns of the Northern Hills or the Badlands. “Professor Wipple’s Cure-All” is thus sold out of the back of the man’s wagon to unsuspecting rubes as a means of easing their various maladies, facilitating work crews to put in extra overtime and work more efficiently, and inspire the intellectual to greater feats of creativity or magical alacrity. When, weeks later, the cure-all runs out and Professor Wipple’s cart has proceeded down the road to the next stop, a voice in their ear directs them to the Honeypot to get some more of the good stuff, with none the wiser as to the source of this debilitating addiction.
Wipple’s success has so-far managed to keep his debtors at bay and keep the Hungering Darkness from coming to claim him. The more he sells, the longer he gets to live. But, he knows in the back of his mind that he’s living on borrowed time, and a bad week of sales could end him forever.


It takes a lot to make a tribe of Nephilim particularly notorious. The average human probably couldn’t tell one of the purple-skinned creatures from another if their life depended on it, so the fact that the Pale-Mark tribe is whispered of in taprooms and stagecoaches near the Far Peaks should give an indication of the level of savagery to which they have descended.
Nephilim attacking humans is not a new thing. Nephilim drinking blood or consuming flesh also is nothing new. But Nephilim descending on livestock, horses, wild animals, or even other Nephilim and consuming them entirely is something else. Rumor has it that they wandered off from their people’s forests to live in the mountains at some point in the distant past, either being driven off as exiles or choosing to make a break with the other tribes. Eventually, they found themselves trapped by a severe winter that drove them to the brink of death and forced them to turn to cannibalism to survive. And, in doing so, they accepted a deal with an ancient entity of hunger and cold, which has since driven them nearly to the point of madness and cannibalism. There are other whispers that members of the Pale-Mark have been seen working with some of the wild-men from the northern mountains, though these are almost too ridiculous to be believed. What is known is that something has started to drive them down from their mountains, and they’ve been preying on stagecoaches and settlements ever since. What’s caused this is unknown, but it seems like someone is going to have to go deal with them before more innocents are sacrificed to slake their endless hunger.