Gauge: A diceless RPG about survival

The Your Move Jam posed a challenge: Design a “Powered by the Apocalypse” (a.k.a. “PbtA”) game with only a single move. I’d been sitting on an idea for just such a game for a long time: Gauge, a diceless, token-based game about surviving in hostile environments with tight resources. I’d been sitting on it because I honestly wasn’t confident it would be fun to play—but now I aim to find out. You can now find Gauge free on Itch while “in development,” and I’ll be running at least one playtest for it this year at Metatopia. In the meantime, I wanted to explain how I managed to get only two pages of game (so far) out of 22 pages of notes, and why on Earth I think about it as “Fallout meets Bloodborne: A Diceless Powered by the Apocalypse Old School RPG.”

This game was born from some surprising (to me, anyway) parallels I noticed in a couple of my favorite video games: American post-apocalyptic shooter/RPG Fallout 4 and Japanese gothic-horror action RPG Bloodborne. The trappings and tropes, the storytelling styles, and the weapons at hand are all quite different, but the core of the combat experience comes down to the same things: quick thinking and tight resource management. Even after you’ve played so much that you’ve got razor-sharp timing, any given action in a life-or-death situation potentially demands a sacrifice of a precious resource—either health, stamina, or ammo. Position yourself to strike an enemy, for instance, and you likely open yourself up to losing health; dodge out of the way after striking, and you opted to spend stamina instead; fire shots wildly, and you opted to spend ammo instead. And, crucially, those fights don’t feel random. When you succeed at these games, it feels like you succeeded because you were quick and smart.

Hoping to capture this feeling in a tabletop RPG, I decided to ditch randomness and see if I could find a diceless game that similarly imparts this feeling of player skill. I wasn’t quite able to find the exact game I wanted for this, but I played some (and read many more) very inspiring diceless games, including Dream Askew, …In Spaaace!, Diceless Dungeons, Undying, The Grind, Solipsist, Amber Diceless/Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, and Levi Kornelsen’s “breath” rules from Mechanisms for Tabletop Roleplaying Set 2. I started thinking of my own approach as “Blood, Breath, and Bullets,” after the three currencies you had to track most carefully, but moved to the working title “Gauge.” The name comes from both the rules term for resources tracked with tokens, monitored like a fuel gauge, and also a term associated with ammunition, which you might want to track down to the last shell in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Also, I feel slightly less goofy saying it. (And I probably shouldn’t even admit to my other early working title, “Blood, Sweat, and Bandoliers,” which I would probably still use for a Old West setting variant, against my best judgment.)

I’ve tinkered with a number of versions of the core mechanic. The first approach I wrote about online (aeons ago, on G+, when dinosaurs roamed this Earth) required spending tokens to add or remove any “and” or “but” statement appended to an action. This proved far fiddlier and more distracting to keep track of than I considered acceptable for a fast-paced game. A later version worked something like the diceless PbtA vampire game Undying, except with entirely GM-facing moves: Players would simply describe what they want to do, and it’d be on the GM to consult a price list for different kinds of actions. That, too, proved more cumbersome than I was looking for. (Though I may rework some of those moves for a later edition, or variant modules/playsets. Like: “When they ask what they know, tell them whatever you think anyone in the setting would know, or more than that if anyone has a trait that would give access to more information.” I mean, that ain’t bad.)

In anticipation of Metatopia registration, I was looking over the notes for this game again—and thinking about how bloated all my designs seemed—when I saw the Your Move Jam on Itch. This felt like a good opportunity to rein things in and find the actual core of the game. And so, in this publicly in-development version, the basic rule is this: Just describe what you do until the GM tells you that something you’re doing has a cost; then, pick whether you accept the cost, try to mitigate it with tokens or fictional concessions, or pivot to some other action, whatever that costs.

That’s it for now, anyway. It probably needs some more guidelines on the whole “cost” thing, but I have some ideas on that front. As of now, it’s basically old-school free-play right up until it turns into the Savvyhead’s workshop move from Apocalypse World—tell the MC what you want to build, and the MC will tell you what it costs—but with an immediate ultimatum. An earlier version of the move had an option along the lines of, “step back and consider an alternative approach,” but I didn’t want this to be a Blades in the Dark style negotiation for position and effect on every single action. Rather, when even the best laid plans leave the players’ characters in danger, I want them to think fast and spend hard, or back off and give someone else a turn to act while they ponder other angles. If you need to step back and consider an alternative approach, you pivot to some other action, whatever that costs, and aim to choose something with minimal risk—hopefully, costing no more than the time it takes you to come up with a better plan.

I am very excited to playtest this game. I also extremely nervous. It’s unlike anything I’ve worked on before, and I feel slightly afraid that yanking randomness out of an action game could hurt more than helps. I almost abandoned the idea entirely after seeing Fred Bednarski’s excellent Goon Jam submission, Endure (which read to me like an even more elegant approach that happens to use dice). Some thoughtful folks on the Gauntlet Forums reassured me that there are plenty of good ways to create uncertainty in an RPG without randomizers, though, so I figured I’d give it a shot. We’ll see how it goes when I run it in just over a month. And if anybody out there ends up playing in the meantime or anytime after, please do let me know—I’m definitely very much open to feedback.

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