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  • Writer's pictureLiam Stevens

High Stakes

Kia ora whānau When I started this blog two months back, I fully had high expectations of regular weekly blog posts. Well here we are a couple months later with post two. Far out, what a delay. Life happened. A crisis spiraled at work that kept me pretty highly strung for the last month. I started playing in an actual play with WebDM over on Twitch and Youtube. I also started recording an Actual Play for my podcast, Mud & Blood that will go live in the new year. I also ran a Halloween special over on M&B of the legendary dark fantasy game Mork Borg. And I moved house. I have not recovered. I am old. I am in pain. Movers are worth every single cent.

Anyway, enough of the pity party. You aren't here to read about my misery. You wanna here about high noon, raised brows and smoking guns.


A couple weeks back I finished my home Fistful of Sixes playtest campaign. We played around eight sessions and got to experience a lot of fun moments. Failed ambushes on coaches, lost characters in the wild, dynamite blowing up churches, horse thieving, bounty hunting and characters going to the noose. It was dynamic, it was compelling and it was informative and educational. But most of all it was fun. The fun was largely thanks to my home group. Its the kind of group that can make most games fun. But importantly the system didn't hold them back, and at times absolutely drove that fun. I am a fan of systems that get out of the way, only coming into play when they absolutely must. I wrote Fistful with that very much in mind. I wanted a strong sense of player fiat, with suitable amounts of Risk and Reward. You can go back to my first blog to read about the core mechanic and how I set out to achieve that. But here I want to talk about a sub system that really brought this feeling front and center and absolutely created highlight moments every single time it was used. High Stakes Duels.

High Stakes Duels are the black jack mechanic pushed to its extreme. It is a system for the highlight moment of your game. Be it guns at high noon, a crucial hand of poker with your nemesis, that last ditch jump from the runaway wagon before it flies over the cliff. Its for situations where the stakes are so high that its do or die, win or absolutely lose. Mechanically it is very similar to the blackjack mechanic used in standard tests. You have a attribute that you are testing on, as is your opponent, and you want to get higher than them while below your attribute. Where it differs is that when setting the stakes you aren't choosing the number of dice you will roll, but rather the number of coin tosses you will get. Heads on the coin scores 6. Tails scores 1. You still have the same odds, in theory, but the fickle hand of fate has much more swing. On top of this you cannot manipulate the result with stress or luck. Once the coins are tossed, that's it. The result stands. And the results of High Stakes Duels must be just that, high stakes. If its a duel, the loser is down for the count. If its the wagon heading towards the cliff as two opponents struggle to get clear, the winner watches the loser go over the edge with the wagon. Or if both people involved stress out then both go with it. Its very much do or die.

This often sounds scary at first glance. Most of my play testers and editors/proof readers so far have all said that they love it in theory but have to see it in practice. I felt similar apprehensions. Then our first session had 2 high stake duels, after which all sessions did. They quickly became the centerpiece of each session. That moment everyone spoke about when recapping last weeks session. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. It became a ritual. Which I think is key to the experience. When a player declared they wanted a High Stakes Duel, we would slow things right down. Phones went away. Small talk stopped. Everyone leaned in and paid close attention. First I would play Silhouette of Doom by Ennio Morricone, which became the High Stakes theme. I would often announce an NPC's intent to enter a duel by playing this piece of music. Very quickly it became a trigger for the players, which would make them pause and focus every time.

Then I would get the player to set their stakes. This often became a group discussion as the odds were quickly hashed out. I would generally announce what the NPC was planning to do for theirs, so that the players would try and gamble the situation in their favor. Considering their characters lives were on the line I enjoyed letting this moment play out. Once stakes were set I would designate a tally keeper. This persons role was to note down the results of each coin toss, tallying as they go. They would announce the current result each toss, for maximum tension. Then together, slowly, the two dueling parties would toss simultaneously, tallying each toss. I would make sure this was slow and deliberate. Toss, catch, expose in unison and announce the result. As the numbers got higher, and the two parties got closer to their upper limit, you could slice the tension with a knife. It was palpable. As luck would have it we never had any truly swingy duels, where someone had clearly lost early. They all felt like tight things. There were times where a player was out of tosses, with the NPC having one left, seemingly in an advantageous position, only to end up busting on the last toss. There were many times were it was neck and neck, with the final toss deciding the situation. They all felt epic. Even when players failed and suffered for it, it felt earned. It felt cinematic and most of all, it felt fun. I loved it. The table did too. The slow pace in the middle of a hectic heist would create such great moments. The way you tossed coins one at a time drew out an important moment in a way a quick flick of the dice cant. The do or die nature of it meant that when all things seemed lost, players wouldn't hesitate to throw it all on the line to take out their nemesis in one last gamble. Players would get inventive too. In one case a player used it to drop from a tree down onto a mounted plantation guard, hoping to take him out and steel his horse, only to cave his face in as he missed. In another situation two handcuffed and gagged characters rushed the renowned bounty hunter that had them in custody, with one falling to their death along side the bounty hunter, as both tumbled from a second story balcony. Or when a player threw a firebomb at their downed friend, surrounded by foes, igniting the dynamite on the players hip, sacrificing them to takeout the posse. All epic moments with laughter, cheers, winces and sorrow. But all epic and memorable none the less. I know it sounds like I'm gushing about my own work here. Because I am. This is a fun wee mechanic. One I hope gets pilfered and used elsewhere. Its fun and something I cannot recommend enough. Hopefully when FFoS sees the light of day, you'll get to experience these moments too. So whats next? Well now that my internal play test is finished I need to go ahead and put into place some of the lessons I learned from it. I'm hoping to take some time off over the holiday period to write out a proper beta of the game. As I do so no doubt I will do some musings on here. Until then, keep rocking peeps. Thanks for having patience and riding out the long delay. Ka kite ano Liam

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