Nov 06

Shadow of Yesterday, Part 1: Bringing Down the Pain


TalesOfAGM Dice Sq SmWhen I read how Shadow of Yesterday was written as a love letter to HeroQuest, I knew I had to find a copy. It was worth the effort, as here are some great ideas in this game.


In this essay I explore a method of upgrading conflicts.


Shadow of Yesterday

First, however, a quick overview of the game itself.


Shadow of Yesterday was written by Clinton R Nixon, published by CRN Games in 2005. The introduction describes the game as follows:


This is a fantasy roleplaying game set in a world broken and reborn, a world that you, the players, get to shape.


As with so many RPGs, Shadow of Yesterday is bundled with a setting. For the purposes of this essay, however, we are only interested in the rules. These are likewise outlined in the introduction:


The rules of this game are meant to enable a type of fantasy where things don’t necessarily make common sense, but are always full of style, a bit creepy, a bit comedic, a bit dark and violent, and definitely romantic.


Bringing Down the Pain

The section of the stylish rules for Shadow of Yesterday I am exploring today is part of the resolution system known as Bringing Down the Pain. This section shows strong parallels with both HeroQuest 2 and Trollbabe.


See here for my love of HeroQuest 2.


My final Trollbabe article list all the previous essays in this long series.


There are two main insights from Shadow of Yesterday I want to share with you in this essay:

  • Upgrading a Conflict
  • Player Input


Upgrading a Conflict

The central idea of Bringing Down the Pain is to upgrade a conflict with a GMC. We have all seen encounters where the witty banter escalates into a fight. That is a classic example of Bringing Down the Pain.


Under the rules of Shadow of Yesterday, a Player who loses a contested ability roll can escalate the conflict to an extended contest. In HeroQuest 2, this equates to a shift from a Simple Contest to an Extended one. For f20-style games, this is similar to upgrading a single skill roll into an entire skill challenge.



I love the scalability of this system, how any simple contest can escalate into a major conflict. The story camera can zoom in and detail a conflict should the table desire. Players often want to focus their attention in unexpected areas, and this rule allows any conflict to increase in scope.


These rules bring faster prep for the GM, who no longer needs to prepare every conflict in great detail.


Player Input

Likewise, the concept of Bringing Down the Pain gives you more story as it facilitates greater Player freedom. By requiring a Player to instigate this conflict escalation, the rules pass more narrative control to the Players. Allowing the Players to choose when to increase the focus on a conflict means the Players take the story where they want to go. Giving the Players greater narrative control has reaped benefits in my campaign, and here it is enshrined in the rules of Shadow of Yesterday.


Clinton notes in the rules how it is only the Players who can Bring Down the Pain. This is the only way in Shadow of Yesterday for a named major GMC to be significantly harmed or killed. Once more, this is handing narrative power to the Players.


Just by adding this rule, Clinton is forcing the Players to be proactive, to make deliberate choices about the narrative. The Players choose which are the important conflicts in the game, and it is their choices which decide where the story lingers to play out a detailed contest.


As with so many narrative-style games, this does require a change in style from the GM. Shadow of Yesterday is clearly another game in the “play to see what happens” school. The combination of reduced prep, increased Player input and stories which surprise even the GM make such games very appealing to me.


Adding Pain to your Game

The appeal of these rules makes me want to add them to my HeroQuest campaign as a Rules Widget.


Adding an option to the contest rules whereby a Player can choose to upgrade the conflict is a great way to diversify the input into your stories. Once the Players know they can exercise control over the narrative, then they will be more engaged with the story. This is exactly what happened for me.


The first step to making Bringing Down the Pain an option in your game is to have a tiered contest resolution system. This is more likely to already be part of a narrative game, but f20 games have a similar structure with the optional skill challenge rules.


Then, hand over to the Players control of the transition from the simple contest to the more detailed, extended version. Make it clear how long-term effects only arise as a result of the extended contest. Once the process is clear, sit back and enjoy how the Players guide more of the story.


Pain Hurts

When using this system, ensure there is a cost to escalating a conflict. The consequences for the GMCs are clear, but how does Bringing Down the Pain impact the Heroes?


One reason to impose a cost is to limit how often the Players invoke an extended contest. Some may see this as a chance never to lose an opposed roll ever again. Haggling, perception and every other skill check could escalate into an extended contest if Players know this will increase their chances of overcoming defeat.


Therefore, I tie this process to the Wyrd Cards we use, as a way to limit the number of times the Players choose this option.


Yet, there should be an in-game risk here too. Ideally, these escalated contests are moments of high drama, when the stakes are as high as the potential outcome. Thus, the outcome of an extended contest should be worse for both parties when these rules are invoked. Or at least, there should be the potential for more serious consequences.


In this way, the Players will be wary of Bringing Down the Pain at every opportunity. These contests should be the core scenes of the story, and thus have a lasting impact on both parties. The outcomes of these contests shape the wider campaign, so need more significant results.


Clinton notes this in the text, where he explains how Bringing Down the Pain is the only way to permanently injure, or kill, a major GMC. Putting lives on the line is one way to underline what is at stake. Increased damage, lingering penalties and loss of material wealth are also suitable options. The exact stakes depend upon the current story, but Players need to understand how more is at stake when these rules are invoked.


Bringing Down Pain QuoteConclusion

The mechanism of Bringing Down the Pain cleverly combines several strands of narrative gaming. It gives the Players more control, and thus brings greater investment into the story. It is a vehicle by which the GM can see where the Players want to focus the story. Finally, the rules present the Players with an interesting decision as they balance risk with reward.


I am excited to try these rules out in my game.


What do you think of this Rules Widget? How would you represent the heightened risk to the Heroes? Is this even something which would interest your Players? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.


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Happy Gaming



If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:


Something for the Weekend last week: The Nomenclature of Elementals


Something for the Weekend next week: Shadow of Yesterday, Part 2, Action Types



4 pings

  1. So, I read your post twice. And I have some questions.

    It sounds good in theory, but how are contests resolved? I don’t have a clear understanding of the procedure beyond the point where you “zoom in?” Does it involve turn-taking and opposed rolls? Is it resource management? Does it have an action economy? I have a passing familiarity with the systems you mentioned but I don’t really know what’s going on here.


      • Phil on November 12, 2015 at 1:54 pm
      • Reply

      Hi Dither,

      Very sorry this is not clear, and thank you for letting me know.

      In HeroQuest 2 contests are divided into simple and extended. In a simple contest, any conflict can be resolved with a single opposed roll. In contrast, a contest with an extended duration, such as a presidential election, or a highly dramatic contest, such as combat, can be run as an extended contest. Essentially, an extended contest consists of a series of single opposed rolls, where the consequences stack.

      In a narrative game, which does not track exact hit points, it is entirely possible to scale a contest up or down, as demanded by the story or desired by the Players. As far as the rules are concerned, it is entirely possible to conduct a pitched battle between armies with a simple contest, then devote an extended contest to a desperate search of the necromancer’s tent for a lost love letter. It all depends where the Players’ interest lies.

      So, as you suggested, the difference does lie in a sequence of opposed rolls. However, even in an extended contest, a single round which produces a fumble vs a critical can end the conflict. This is a 1-in-400 happening (ignoring Masteries), but it is possible.

      Under such a flexible system, it is then possible for a Player to demand an upgrade from a simple contest to an extended one.

      Does that make it any clearer?

      All the best

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