Instability as RPG pillar

In a conversation with the Roll for Topic podcast community, I suggested that instability is a key ingredient for an interesting role-playing game setting, something that offers a central thematic Problem that can’t be solved or avoided. [That was close to a year ago, when I initially drafted this post and didn’t post it…]

In some cases, the instability is macro: society or the world is at the cusp of a major change, and the field of play is either navigating and surviving that change, or attempting to take control of it. This is common in high fantasy or super-heroic scale games and inspiring media: Pathfinder’s world of Golarion is at risk of nation- or continent-scale catastrophe in every published adventure path, and the players are (generally) working to put things back to right, just as Lord of the Rings sees Frodo and the Fellowship attempting to stop Sauron from conquering the world.

A game setting like The Strange or Predation (both Monte Cook Games’ Cypher System) fit this mold–in the one, players are agent of The Estate, trying to stave off interdimensional invasion or collapse; the other sees time travelers stranded in the Cretaceous on a countdown clock towards being trapped there forever. Band of Blades has the shattered remnants of a military unit retreating from an overwhelming undead force. The Quiet Year sees a community marking down the year until disaster: the players are not trying to prevent or act on this inevitability, but it is there as a clear frame for play. In other media, the original Star Wars trilogy, Dune, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Avengers: Infinity War are similarly about the major actors struggling for the fate of the known world or galaxy.

In other settings and games, instability is more personal: society may be in a relatively stable state, but the individuals in the spotlight are not; these are often stories of criminals, or at least outlaws. Blades in the Dark sees a crew of scoundrels pulling heists in a haunted steampunk city: if they fail, the city will swallow them up and move on with barely a notice–and mechanics like stress and trauma are used to push them towards that nigh-inevitable slipping beneath the surface, reinforcing the theme of personal-scale instability. Blades spin-off Scum & Villainy cites space westerns like the Millennium Falcon, Firefly, and Cowboy Bebob as influences: spacer crews trying to eke out a living on the edge of interstellar empire without running afoul of the authorities. (I’ve not played Star Wars: Edge of Empire, but understand it is a more brand-name version of the same.)

Some I have trouble placing–that’s maybe why I’ve never actually played Numenera despite finding the setting to be an interesting world: people a billion years in the future exist on the archeological detritus of several prior civilizations, surrounded by technology so advanced as to have been forgotten, now indistinguishable from magic. When I read it, though, there’s not necessarily a defining setting-wide instability: neither a macro-scale force placing the world on the eve of massive change, nor an obvious personal-scale drama. The setting seems instead in a fairly stable state of uncertainty. There’s plenty of room to set up an unstable scenario at either scale and see what happens, but nothing that has grabbed me as “this, right here, is the compelling core instability that drives this setting and makes me want to play.”

A dungeon-delving game like Dungeon Crawl Classics or Dungeon World similarly doesn’t define a default setting-level uncertainty to me. “Look, just go find some ruins, plunder them, bring back gold, and try to live long enough that you can do it again tomorrow.” You can certainly use the basic structure to put together a game of world-shaking events, or to zoom in to the human needs driving these characters into desperate dungeoneering, but neither of those is baked into the rules, and neither game offers a standard/default setting.

Forbidden Lands, by contrast, is a very similar genre to DCC and DW (“default d&d-type fantasy”), but presents a setting-level instability:

“The demonic Blood Mist that covered the lands for three centuries, draining the life out of anyone who dared to wander too far from their village, has suddenly and inexplicably lifted. You, and other restless souls like you, are finally free to leave your homes and travel far and wide in the Forbidden Lands, looking for treasures and adventures.”

Ultimately, it seems to offer a similar default play loop as DCC: go explore, delve ruins, collect treasure, hope you survive that process so you can repeat it tomorrow. (caveat: I haven’t played it yet!) It’s the defined moment of change, though–the lifting of the blood mist–that explains why “this is why you have decided right here and right now to go forth and explore/delve/collect/hope.” Just injecting a framing instability into the play loop makes it more game-able. [Note: there’s a Humble Bundle including a bunch of Forbidden Lands books on through Jan. 18.]

Instability and dungeon23

I’d initially been thinking on this, and wrote most of the above, as I was getting ready to run my Old School Adventures game, using the old Grey Box Forgotten Realms setting.

I’m thinking on this again in the context of the dungeon23 writing project. If an inherent instability makes for a good game system or setting, the same applies to a megadungeon or similar. One of the criteria that I see people offer of what makes a dungeon a megadungeon is that “the monsters don’t all just sit and wait for the players,” but have their own agendas. That could include,

  • Factions that pursue their own agendas over time, in parallel to (or orthogonal to) the PCs’ own
  • Restocking the dungeon with new inhabitants as the PCs’ movement leaves vacuums behind them
  • Uneasy peaces or tense standoffs that the introduction of the PCs disrupts
  • Physical features that are decaying, growing, or otherwise in flux
  • Combinations of those things crashing into each other or snowballing

I’m reviewing some of the planning notes I’ve made so far with this in mind–where’s the instability here?

About Me

Michigander, parent of twins, urban planner, role-playing game nerd.


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