Morgan Davie on System, a|state and Vomit

a|state second edition is coming to Kickstarter on Tuesday July 27th. Jon recently interrupted Morgan Davie’s work on the new edition to ask him some questions about the system, having already bothered Malcolm about the setting last week.

Yo Morgue. 

Kia ora Jon! 

Let’s get right to it:

So you’re in charge of the system side of things on a|state. Tell us about Forged in the Dark games. Why are they good? And if I’ve never played one, what is it like?

Forged in the Dark games descend from John Harper’s Blades in the Dark, which is about criminal gangs pulling off daring scores in a gloomy weird-fantasy city. Mostly they hit like this: the player characters are a bunch of badasses united by a strong reason to work together, the GM is encouraged to follow their lead without preparing too much, and everybody around the table gets to put their stamp on what is happening.

The FitD dice mechanic is very simple (but with lots of little levers you can push and pull as you learn how it all works), and it spits out lots of complications. Those very competent player characters spend a lot of time living out the “well well well, if it isn’t the consequences of my own actions” meme. It gives FitD games a lot of momentum: you set out to do something, and then you do it, but now you have new problems to deal with!

Why is Forged in the Dark a good fit for a|state in particular?

Gregor Hutton was the one who first said “Forged in the Dark would work perfectly for a|state”. He was right, because Gregor’s always right. Blades in the Dark is about a bunch of chancers sneaking about in the alleyways of a huge, gloomy city, which is an instant match. But it goes a bit deeper than that!

It makes sure actions spark reactions, solutions are almost never clean and tidy, and problems arise easily and ripple outwards, all of which fit perfectly with the messy density of The City.

It has a faction system that works for huge City-wide forces that don’t know you exist, but also for that one grumpy family in the next tenement who keep spreading rumours about you.

It’s entirely player-facing, so the GM never needs to come up with detailed stats for what lurks in The City – very handy when dealing with the strange and unknowable Shifted.

There are more! But for me the best bit is how FitD elevates details. Whenever there’s an action roll, the player and GM both have a say in how the rules apply, and everyone can show their work and talk through the reasons for their decisions. You don’t roll any dice until everyone’s on the same page. This means you get an intense focus on the details of the fictional situation, which plugs right into one of a|state’s big drawcards, its vividly imagined setting. Every time you make an action roll, you also work together to bring The City to life. It works great!

I know that we’re all super hot on system and setting being almost the same thing. What have you done to adapt FitD specifically to a|state?

My vision of a|state (going right back to first edition) is that its ideal story is about a bunch of mismatched troublemakers teaming up to protect their corner of The City. That’s right at the foundation of the second edition.

So the players work together to create their corner, and that’s the thing that ties the characters together. The overall mission isn’t to gather coin and get bigger, but to build hope on the corner and fend off trouble.

In most FitD games, the characters are all working pretty closely together, they’re all in the same criminal gang or they’re all on the same spaceship. In a|state, they are joined together in an alliance, but that can be shaky sometimes. To represent that there’s a whole system of managing trust (and, potentially, betrayal) that old fans of a|state follow-ups Cold City and Hot War might find familiar.

What’s the favourite bit of rules adaption in a|state? What will really drive the Forged in the Dark fans wild?

Honestly, my favourite single change is the new core action “Care”. The list of actions is one of the ways FitD games distinguish themselves, and this one is such a big statement of purpose for a|state. The City is a horrifically uncaring environment, and one of the ways the troublemakers push back is by caring for each other and those around them. I am very happy that every time the GM describes some appalling act of exploitation in a grim factory, the players can look down and see the word Care on their character sheet.

Awesome. Kindness is verily the new punk.

There are some really cool accessories planned for a|state and we haven’t spoken about any of them. Let’s spill some tea here. What physical “bits” can people, so utterly delighted by the glorious accessories we made for BEOWULF, expect for a|state?

I am extremely excited to get my hands on this stuff myself! It all comes from thinking hard about how this game plays and how we can best serve that process. 

First up, the Table Tower! This is a bit like a GM screen, except it isn’t a GM screen because the GM doesn’t have any secrets to keep! It sits in the middle of the table where everyone can enjoy the beautiful art and refer to the handy tables, and it’s also the perfect place to stick up notes so they won’t get overlooked!

Then, the Action Playmat! This gorgeous item will have everything you need for the action roll process right there so getting on the same page is a breeze.

And, the City Token! It’s a hefty, beautiful metal coin, helpfully marked with the directions used in The City, and sized to fit perfectly on the action playmat as you figure out risk and reward!

Finally, Punchboard Clocks! The rules use what’s called “clocks” as a visual tracker of movement towards a goal or a crisis. Now you can track your progress in style!

Cool! Let’s be really mean and make people wait until the Kickstarter to see pictures! And of course, I feel honour-bound to point out that just like BEOWULF, you don’t need any of these things to play the game.

Ok that’s some good a|state stuff discussed. What about you? What’s your background in RPGs? What’s so good about RPGs, and what is the best RPG?

I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by my wonderful aunt when I was seven or eight. In the first minutes of the game, we encountered a grisly battle scene, and she declared that her character found it so upsetting she threw up. In that moment I understood: you can do anything in these games, anything at all! It was the vomit that changed my life.

I’ve been enthusiastically playing and sharing RPGs since then. I’ve always enjoyed exploring what’s out there in the RPG field and trying different games. I feel hugely energised by the field as it is right now, absolutely bursting with energy and innovation, but above all with kindness. Away from the online hot take factories, gaming is all about connecting with each other through play, and it’s so positive. There’s nothing I like better!

(This is the bit where I plug the gaming podcast I do with some improvisers and comedians, playing D&D and other games in front of a live audience – Diceratops Presents)

(Also the best RPG is obviously Living Steel, as Malcolm said in his interview, we are united on this point, it was designed by an actual rocket scientist from NASA so it must be the best mustn’t it.)

So you’re based in New Zealand, a|state is allegedly this very British and moreover Scottish game. But you lived in Edinburgh, right?

I spent a good few years in Edinburgh in the 00s, and I miss it terribly, but the call of home was too strong to ignore! Anyway I think Aotearoa New Zealand and Scotland have lots in common, not least because a good portion of Kiwis trace our ancestry there. It all feels very compatible to me.

As a non-Brit, what makes a game “British”? Is it just because people are poor and miserable in British games?

In RPGs from the US, player characters set out from difficult circumstances, working hard and taking risks to transform themselves and the world around them.

In RPGs from the UK, player characters know they’re not going to transform anything, so they mostly just make bleak jokes to each other and try not to get screwed over too badly.

(Ah, but which is a|state? I guess you’ll have to play to find out…)

Well that’s that cleared up then. Thanks Morgue!

You can sign up to be notified when the Kickstarter launches here.

Find out more about a|state here.
Grab the free setting primer and intro adventure, Nicely, Done here.