This is more work on Hunter’s Dream, a 4th Edition D&D-compatible mod made to enable a Bloodborne style of game, where players take on the role of hunters, who have to first research their prey before going out to the tactical combat stage of things where players get to have cool fights with werewolves and whatnot.
Something I really like from Blades in the Dark, something that I am shamelessly trying to bring to Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition in Hunter’s Dream, is the degree to which players have a sense of agency over the game they’re engaging with.
There’s an existing mindset for D&D that games are basically one of two different kinds of play space. The first is often known as narrativist, where you treat every session, every encounter, as a sequence in a narrative, and so the whole game can be seen as a string of beads. This vision can be sometimes presented as a weakness, where the players are always confined by ‘the story’ that wraps around them like a tunnel. I’m not really here to criticise that, because hey, even the most railroaded game campaign can still be an interesting ghost train.
Then there’s a position, often called ‘simulationist’ which presents the idea that the players are just operating in a world, there’s stuff for them to do, and they can go do stuff at that world, and if it does all relate or connect to things, that’s just because the DM’s job is ‘running the world,’ and any narrative that ensues is emergent. I don’t think this is true either, but some people are fond of talking about it like that.
Neither of these perspectives suit well Blades in the Dark‘s style of player-driven fiction roleplay, and they don’t quite do the job of what I want for Hunter’s Dream. What I want for this is a hybrid model, with a Narrative running as a timer on a simulation, and a large part of that is formalising a system whereby players have direct agency over the tasks in front of them, and the order they handle them.
Now, 4ed is good for this because 4ed D&D is designed to handle a lot of small tactical encounters that are reasonably well-balanced with one another, where the alchemy between monster interactions are less likely to result in catastrophic failures. You’re not likely to find a lot of total dealbreaker combos if you throw enemies together semi-randomly, which means one of the things that it handles really well is generating sequences of small quantities of conflict without necessarily a lot of elaborate construction.
This asks for a robust system for constructing incidents quickly, giving DMs good sources of inspiration, and a clear vision of how they can execute on these encounters interestingly. Now I’m a sucker for this: In 4e, I’m a fan of using the same monster configurations from fight to fight and just changing the terrain around them and watching as players have to formulate different strategies to deal with them.
What I think of in Hunter’s Dream then is that players have a set of different competing needs, they choose what they’re going to go out and hunt, and why. This isn’t to leave players completely adrift, stuffing their characters into a monster pachinko machine – if you’re fighting random monsters of your level, over and over, you’re just going to feel like you’re throwing effort into a bin. What you need then is stuff to structure the kinds of encounters players are after, which I divide into four basic categories: Incidents, Schemes, Needs, and The Doom.
Part of what makes this structure works is when you think of sessions as being like an episodic TV show, where there are some disconnected episodes, some that play into a larger narrative, and some that play across a few episodes but don’t need the whole of the narrative to bend around them.
Incidents are one-off encounters, usually around a simple setpiece. These are spice that the DM can throw into the plot to give people a single episodic combat in part of a greater event. Depending on the campaign, this could be finding a single town with a problem, or maybe a sort of short story event in your existing story. There’s probably a good list of short story seeds on a table in the book for this.
The purpose of Incidents is to both give players a way to feel they’re engaging with a world, without necessarily feeling that the pressure of their main plot is constant. They’re also a sneaky way to test out individual monsters to see how players react to them, or little plot spurs – any given Incident can return if players seemed to like it.
Schemes are sort of like recurring villains but not the big one. Schemes are when you have a single character or monster type you can build conflicts around. These can be used to set up a few sessions in a row, like an arc villain, where part of the puzzle of the enemy is working out who the monster is. These work great at giving people some of that sequence of narrative they want – something that isn’t resolved in a single session, but something that still gives a little bit more substance.
The thing with a scheme is that it gives you ways to build the player’s themes, and build a cast of villains and enemy forces. This can also cover things that happen on cycles that aren’t necessarily agency-driven; things like how each full moon, you have to deal with mooncalves coming down from the sky or werewolves, for example. Schemes can also be single sites, like a haunted house or discovering a cult’s lair in their city, something that has a bit of substance and reacts to the Doom.
Rather than dive into dungeons for gear, players in Hunter’s Dream make their stuff in the downtime between fights. Rather than just make it so they can make whatever, though, there’s going to be some degree of recipe requirements, where players can go fight monsters of specific type or with specific keywords to get components that empower their gear.
This lets players theme their stuff more strongly because they can directly connect their work to things they did; it’s not just ‘a flaming sword,’ it’s ‘a sword they made out of the goop they got from that massive caterpillar that spits brimstone.’
And finally we have the big bad, the tension of the setting, the Doom. The Doom is the thing that sets the overall pace of the game and determines when it’s going to end. The Doom has a track it’s fulfilling, as players do or don’t do things. The Doom has a mechanical impact: As the Doom gets closer, players get fewer downtime actions and monsters are stronger. It’s possible that some monsters can be tied specificaly to the Doom and get specific abilities or unlock special powers. The Doom isn’t just impacting a thing for players, it’s impacting the world, and that means everything going on in the world is going to be reacting to it. Even if it’s just ‘werewolves are stronger with the impending nightmare moon,’ everything that the werewolves affects is going to be acting like the world is more dire.
Dooms aren’t all made the same – the two basic ideas I have at this point is that Dooms can be impending or engaging.
An impending doom is something that’s changing the world slowly, like a blood moon rising, something that’s getting closer every day, no matter what happens, but whose impact on the world increases daily. It might well be that the impending doom is not even a meaningfully dangerous thing that arrives like a coming dragon or an awakening celestial event or something like that, but an impending doom may just be a broken ancient spell that messes up enemies, making for a time when ordinary monsters start acting like a siegebreaking force. The point of an Impending doom is that you’re going to do what you can to hold the world together, or trying to get strong enough to deal with it. Impending dooms are things you survive or drive off.
An engaging doom is more like a vampire with a plan. Engaging dooms are like the Empress of Executions, who awakens from her nightmare crypt and publically executes everyone who opposes her. It’s someone who has a reason to react to the players, to be aware of the players, someone who has plans that are far-reaching enough their plans will come to fruition, but the players get to earn advantages against them while those plans are put forth. This is your vampire queens, your dreadful cult of the shapeless, your waking leviathans, things where periodically, Incidents turn out to be related to the Doom and solving them right – or solving them in a more difficult way – saps strength from the Doom long-term.