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The Pennyway Rule

Editor’s Note: The core rules for Mnemonic incorporate the mechanics described below as part of their foundation; this post explains why I designed them that way, and how specifically to implement them within a Forged-in-the-Dark game.

I mostly like Blades in the Dark. The worldbuilding is interesting, the tone is grim in a delicious way, and the systems for building characters are robust enough that you can swiftly build a character that does the things you need them to do, while giving you room to play.

That being said, there’s a few things that I personally don’t like, and would rather not have to deal with during play. The problem for me arises when all of them come into contact with each other, so I’m going to list them here and then break down the issues I see before offering a possible solution.

If you want to just skip ahead to the house rule, you can do that by clicking here.

On writing over someone’s work

I want to be careful, when I use someone else’s work as a jumping-off point. I think it’s important for us to support each other’s work, and we want to riff on it, grow together, help everybody make the things they want to make. We have to be careful that when we do this, the thing I’m doing now, that we don’t establish negative judgments of value on the work someone else did. So.

I’m writing this for myself, and for anyone else who wants to use it. The goal of this post isn’t to critique or tear down someone else’s work; I would not be the game designer I am today without having read and experienced Blades in the Dark, and I’m definitely not here to tell John Harper that he did anything wrong when they wrote their book. So take this post with a grain of salt, and understand that it comes from a place of wanting to grow things, and hopefully to give readers a bit of insight into how and why I do things when I design games.

There’s no one right way to do any of this. This is just my way.

Explaining the Problem

These are the components I find troubling, especially when combined together:

On their own, none of these things are necessarily bad.

Trauma represents a significant event in the character’s life that changes their outlook in a meaningful way; it gives the player a thing to engage with, which can be cool; and it also provides a way for characters to leave the story when life in the crew is too much to bear.

Harm gives players meaningful mechanical consequences when things go badly, some escalating effects that are tangible in satisfying ways.

Resistance gives players a way to say “no” within the mechanics, which can be a useful lever to pull when you don’t want to let an opportunity slp away. (important note here: resistance rolls are not a player safety tool, and shouldn’t be relied on as if they were)

The problem, then, comes when all three systems come into contact with each other. The GM can corner you in a situation where your character has to take a serious injury, or something narratively has to happen that you’re not okay with, or you have to take on trauma. If you have no Harm boxes open and you already have three traumas, your options are “Take whatever consequences the GM describes” or “game over”.

My personal view (and everyone’s allowed to feel differently) is that a player should never be wholly at the mercy of another player. The current setup for Harm, Trauma, and Resistance can lead to that exact outcome if play groups aren’t careful. I think we can probably do better.

So.

The House Rule

First things first, here are the mechanics we’re going to alter:

So forget everything you know about Resistance, Harm, and Trauma. We’re also going to be touching on Position a bit, but won’t be altering any of the ways it currently works.

Injuries

We’re going to replace Harm with a table called Injuries. Where Harm had five boxes total, our new Injuries table has an unlimited number of spaces (or, if you’re designing a new playbook sheet, as many as you can reasonably fit).

Here’s what that table looks like:

Injury Severity Notes
Broken Arm 3 Can’t use left arm
Concussion 2 Hit with a crate, feeling dizzy
Burned 1 Lightly singed, mostly okay

The only thing we’re keeping from the old Harm system is (loosely) what each severity means:

Severity Rules
1 Reduced effect when taking actions affected by this injury.
2 -1d when taking actions affected by this injury.
3 Cannot take actions affected by this injury.

There are two important considerations here. The first is that when you receive an injury, you decide what that injury is and how it happens.

The other consideration, which is also true in the old Harm rules, is that your injury only impacts actions where the injury would reasonably make things more difficult.

A broken arm, for instance, is a level 3 injury, but it doesn’t stop you having a conversation where you might Sway your way out of trouble. It would, however, make it all but impossible to swing a hammer with that arm if you need to Wreck an obstacle in your path.

Injuries need time to recover, and severe ones need more time than lesser ones. At the beginning of Downtime, then, make the following adjustments:

Level 3 injuries can only be reduced by taking the Recovery downtime action. When you take that action, choose one injury to reduce in severity by one level. If you receive treatment from someone with the skill to treat you properly, you can choose two injuries, or reduce a single injury by two levels of severity instead of one.

Consequences

When a player rolls a bad outcome or mixed result during an action (1-3), the GM cannot select an injury as a consequence; instead, the GM must choose a narrative consequence, something happening within the story. Narrative consequences can include the ticking of clocks, since clocks represent narrative events, but the GM cannot choose to harm a player’s character directly.

Position

When pursuing an opportunity, if you change tactics (that is, choose a different action), your position improves by one step. (Tip for the GM: when a character changes tactics, that might be a good opportunity to shift the scene’s focus to another player’s character.)

If you roll a bad outcome, your current position worsens by one step. If this happens and your position was already desperate, you instead lose the opportunity. This worsening of position cannot be resisted.

Pushing Yourself

When the GM describes a consequence, you can push yourself to avoid that consequence. This replaces wholesale the concept of Resistance rolls.

The stress cost of pushing yourself in any context is also modified to reflect your current position:

If your stress bar is full, you cannot accumulate stress. If you push yourself while your stress bar is full, once the current action is resolved, you become incapacitated, pulling you out of the action until the start of the next Downtime phase. How you get taken out of the action is up to you.

Stress

If your stress bar is full, you become vulnerable.

If your stress bar isn’t full, it’s cleared completely at the beginning of every Downtime phase, with no need to spend a downtime action indulging your vice. This is because we assume that your character is engaging in healthy forms of self-care to recover between scores.

If your stress bar is full, the only way to clear it is to Indulge Your Vice.

If you would take more stress than is available before your stress bar becomes full, you immediately take an injury.

Vulnerable

You become vulnerable when your stress bar is full, and you remain vulnerable until your stress bar is cleared.

While vulnerable, any bad outcome you roll results in an injury, as described above; either worsen an existing injury by one step, or record a new injury at level 1. This is in addition to the narrative consequences described by the GM and cannot be resisted.

Wrapping Up

Think that’s about it.

It eliminates three problems for me (trauma, resistance, and harm as a GM lever), and replaces them with a coherent single system of Push -> Stress -> Injury. It also (quietly) asserts a cultural shift I think might be worth exploring in more detail: Letting a character try again, knowing what it costs to do so, knowing that there are limits.

If you like this rule and you want to use it in your home game, go ahead. If you want to borrow it as part of your game design, that’s okay too. If you want to credit me for the design, you can refer to this as The Pennyway Rule, or just link back to this blog post so that people can find it more easily.

I know that this house rule makes me feel a lot more comfortable playing Forged-in-the-Dark games. It admittedly makes things less lethal, but there are ways to adjust that too:

I’m, personally, a fan of games that don’t take characters away from their players before the players are ready. I would much rather provide tools for saying good-bye to a character when the player is ready. But that’s a spitball for another day.