Over the weekend I saw this tweet on twitter. In it, Corey Hickson talks about a mechanic he really likes from Blades in the Dark. The more I think about the mechanic, the more I find I like it as a way to do encounter design and give certain NPCs a more threatening feel not necessarily by jacking up the mechanical threat they hold, but in how they are presented and how much initiative they have.
Today let's talk about it, and how to use it in your game.
Reactionary, Simultaneous Action, Seize the Initiative.
The basics of the mechanic is that NPCs come into the game at three speeds: they react to the PCs, they act at the same time as the PCs, the PCs have to react to them.
Now this is as much encounter design as NPC design, but the NPCs with the highest threat to them are going to be the ones who fall higher on this scale.
NPCs and encounters at this are at the lowest threat level. When they're encountered, the PCs get to choose what they're going to do and the NPCs get to react to what the PCs are doing. This can happen in a number of ways.
In a Super Hero game this could be the thugs/minions that the PCs come across in the middle of another crime. The PCs start the engagement and then the NPCs react to the engagement.
In a social game, it could be that the PCs go to a party with an objective to accomplish and the NPCs can only make moves to complicate that or stop the PCs after they deploy their own plan.
In a game like D&D or Shadowrun, the PCs get to choose how they'll engage the monsters or enemies, and than the enemies react to that. The reaction or consequence to a failed roll (or the PCs declared intent) could be straight combat.
The point is that the PCs get to decide how things begin, and then the NPCs react to what the PCs are trying to do.
The middle threat level is where skilled NPCs and opponents exist. They are not reactionary to the PCs, they are trying to do their own thing. Put another way, they are trying to put their plan into effect at the same time that the PCs are trying to put their plan into effect.
Corey Hickson describes this as "he's going to try to stab you" at the same time the PC is declaring what they are doing. The key here is that the PC has the choice to either react to or ignore what the NPC is doing. If they ignore it, it could hurt - a lot - but dealing with it also means they're not doing other things.
In that Super Hero game this could be a lieutenant attempting to drive off with a truck full of loot while the PCs are making their move. The PCs can choose to go after the truck, or to ignore it and continue with the rest of the gang still unloading supplies.
In the social/political game this could be an NPC attempting to go forward with their own plan while the PCs are making their moves to get their goal. The PCs can choose to interfere, or they can let it go for now to accomplish their primary objective and hope it doesn't get too far to stop later.
In a game like D&D it could be an archer taking a shot at the PCs at the same time they're lining up their own approach.
The point is that the NPC is trying to do their own thing at the same time the PCs are doing theirs. They come in on an even footing, at least as far as the situation and initiative is concerned.
The PCs Must React
The highest threat level is where initiative resides with the NPC and not the PCs. Before the PCs can attempt to do whatever it is they want to do, they must first deal with what the NPCs are doing to them. Corey Hickson differentiates this from the above with instead of the NPC "trying" to stab the PC, the NPC is actively hitting the PC and now the PC must react.
In the Super Hero game example they arrive and before they can do anything the building beneath their feet is detonated, the thieves covering the tracks of their theft. Before the PCs can deal with the theft, they have to deal with the fact that their footing is literally gone, an explosion has happened, and they could be trapped in the rubble.
In the Social/Political game, the PCs arrive at the party to find the NPC is already buddy-buddy with the person they need to get what they want done. Before they can even try to get their plan enacted, they have to find a way to separate the NPC from their target and undo whatever damage has already been done to their reputation or ability to make progress.
In a game like D&D this can literally be the PCs being ambushed by another group before they can move on the boss monster or someone else like that.
The big point here is that the NPC is not just trying but actually doing something that the PCs have to overcome before they can go after their own goals.
More Than Just Who Ambushes Who
The key thing here is that this is more than just who gets to ambush who. Most encounters should have the PCs pro-active and the NPCs reactionary, and if you do all those as ambushes in a game that is not Blades in the Dark you will quickly find yourself lamenting how easy all the encounters are. Especially combat encounters. Blades isn't a combat centric game, and so to use this you're encounters should have goals that can be done without combat. Even if the goal is murder which feels like it should be combat.
On the other hand, making sure you're not just defaulting to ambushes will make those higher threat NPCs feel more fair. it gets old fast if everytime the PCs come across a boss they are being ambushed and heavily hurt before they get a chance to do anything. However, having other things they have to deal with first can be a great way to really spice things up.