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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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