The Black Swan: Gravity is Existential

The other day I went to a children’s museum with my kids. I love these places, cause they have marble machines. I could honestly just sit and watch those contraptions for hours, watching what gravity does to the marbles. It’s hard to remember that gravity is an active force until you see a ball on a track.

And honestly I find good stories the same way. One little (or big) action leads to a series of reactions, which feed back to the characters, who have to make more decisions, creating a feedback loop. The characters aren’t ever in control, not really. Even if they’re proficient (or especially if they’re proficient) characters find themselves caught up in a machine they’ve very little control over. And the harder they push the worse it gets.

Yes, I love Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, why do you ask? Gravity is a metaphysical reality! Gravity should be a mechanical reality too. I want my games to be a response to incoming situations, not a static state that you just push pieces around in.

If you haven’t read my Black Swan post I suggest you go and read it, but a Black Swan is a hitherto unknown narrative in the story unexpectedly intersecting with yours, creating a twist. You’re not just creating a twist, but crafting someone else’s story and how it was parallel to yours… until now. And then things explode. And now you have to figure out what happens next.

So there are two games I’ve implemented some of my ideas in: Crescendo and Adieux, which I’ve not released for people to look at yet. Both games operate on the idea that a Black Swan, a surprise that’s been cooking in the background, is the goal of the mechanics. All mechanics should point toward it. You should always feel that freight train a’comin’! Both games make use of count-down mechanics that are not only easy to track, but serve multiple uses.

In Crescendo there’s two ways of tracking towards a Black Swan: Resilience Points and the CBS counter. Resilience Points measure how mentally strong your character is. Your Resilience Points drop by the margin of failure on your rolls. When your character’s Resilience Points drop to zero there’s a few things that happen, but the one inevitability is The Black Swan. The internal change leads to an external one. The other way you can get a Black Swan is from the CBS, a counter that increases with the margin of success from all successful rolls. Regardless of how you get there, Black Swans in Crescendo push forward the history of the location you’re at. Things were in motion before you arrived, the world didn’t stop moving just because you stopped looking! Plots to assassinate the king accelerate, unhappy peasants turn to riots, and gods who were considering mercy may change their minds. And so the place continues to evolve, sped along by your actions, one way or another.

Adieux is loosely Powered by the Apocalypse, with Black Swans happening on either the “crit success” or “crit fail” entries. But the middle entries (success and success with cost) give you poker chips: +1 or -1 chips. While you have these chips you modify your rolls by the modified total of those chips (so 3 +1’s and 4 -1’s would mean a -1 penalty)… which pushes you towards getting a Black Swan, one way or the other. You can also spend the chips to control the narrative for a short term gain. Once you get a Black Swan you get rid of all your chips, positive and negative. The Black Swan in this case centers around how you’ve changed the story at the location you’re at and how that feeds back at you. It’s a more immediate focus than in Crescendo: someone was hiding nearby and you just took that hiding place from them, the docks are now sinking and everyone is at risk, maybe the senator just got humiliated and is in the mood for revenge.

Moving the weight of the plot to mechanics also takes some of the pressure off the GM, who can now just focus on the present and not worry about where it’s going. With the additional brain space opened up the GM can be more creative as to the immediate problems facing the players, and he gets to be just as surprised as to the twists as the players are! He’s discovering the game, just on a more deliberately meta level. I’ve found that using Black Swans (and adjusting the mechanics to prompt them) has led to me being much more relaxed at the table. Now, granted, that’s a personality thing for me: I really like themes and saying something, and want my game narratives to carry weight behind them. But being overly concerned about this derails games and makes the experience a lot less meaningful. So Black Swans are my way of designing around my own worst tendencies. I’ll admit that. But there’s still something about it that I think is applicable to others. Just challenge the players, and the game will let you know when you need to do more.

Crescendo isn’t finished, by a long shot, but I’ve found that its mechanics have helped me relax and really enjoy the process in a way that I’ve not found in other games. Adieux is being designed around that structure as well, and while it isn’t ready yet, I can’t wait to share that with y’all. If the plot is like gravity then all you have to do is figure out what you’re going to do with what’s being thrown at you.

If you want to see where Crescendo is at come over to the Discord here!

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