From the moment I read about the mechanic of light and dark tokens in Chill 3rd Edition, it had a death-grip on my imagination like few other mechanics before or since. I finally got a copy of Chill 3e for my birthday, so I can examine the game’s implementation in more detail. I generally like what they do here, but (as the post title gives away) I’m all the more excited about alternate uses in a system of my own creation.
For those who haven’t gone all the way back to early 2014 when I last wrote about Quintessence of Dust, it’s a tabletop system I occasionally work on to model the style of the Dust to Dust campaign, and more generally other LARPs in the Chimera Interactive/Rule of Three family. Since I haven’t touched the draft in more than four years, it would be safe to assume that my thinking on many elements of its design has shifted and I’ll want to overhaul a whole lot of things. Critique of the older content is not particularly needed at present. That said, here are some links to previous posts.
Since even the core of the system is open to getting replaced, then, I’m brainstorming ways I might want to use light and dark tokens in general. I’m using a base of seven tokens, each of which has a light and dark side. Chill assumes that the number of tokens varies based on the number of players, and that makes sense when token-flipping is necessary to fuel spells for both PCs and enemies. In the much higher-magic world of Dust to Dust or any of the games in its lineage, this wouldn’t be at all appropriate, as many heroes and villains use spellcasting as a primary approach.
Further, I want an odd number of tokens in any game representing Dust to Dust. DtD’s setting had a system of numerology based on a strong preference for odd numbers, particularly 5 and 9; 3, 7, and 11 also got in on the act. An odd number of tokens means that light and dark can’t be in balance – one side always has an upper hand.
Uses for the Tokens
Well, right out the gate, PCs can turn a light token dark to gain a sizable bonus to a roll, after the fact. That is, this can convert something that is definitely a miss to a hit. They can also turn a light token dark to impose a comparable penalty to an enemy’s roll, possibly converting a hit to a miss.
The mechanics of critical hits aren’t yet clear in QoD, but let’s assume that flipping a token can’t generate or negate a crit without the use of an additional feature. For example, it would be appropriate for a Farenen Disi assassin to spend a token to convert a hit to a crit, and it would be appropriate for significant magic weapons to have a similar property.
Tokens are timers for tense situations. Within the scope of a single adventure, the tokens put the PCs on the clock: every time they take a long rest, one light token turns dark. If all tokens are dark, a further bad thing happens, probably involving the PCs starting the adventuring day with a condition. I’m inspired here by The One Ring‘s Shadow Corruption. This bleed of light tokens isn’t the default state – you don’t lose all of your light tokens and have everything to go to hell just because you took a week of downtime or traveled for seven days to get to your destination – so I’ll have to think more about when and why it is used.
When there are more light tokens than dark, the PCs act first or gain a bonus to initiative. When there are more dark tokens than light, the forces of evil act first or gain a bonus to initiative.
At night or in cursed places, the forces of evil add the current number of dark tokens to their combat rolls. Some significant magic items and holy blessings, such as the Ivory Sun and Light Under the Mountain, add the current number of light tokens to a PC’s combat rolls (for a much shorter time or at greater cost).
During investigations, a failed roll to find a clue might still gather the needed information, but a light token turns dark. If all tokens are dark, well, there are dire consequences at hand.
Campaign-scale bosses, such as the Lieutenants of the Most Foul, interact with the tokens in more elaborate ways. More on that below.
Spells that restore the dead to life can fail, and their chance of success, success-with-flaw, or extraordinary failure are determined by the current token spread. Material sacrifices, spiritual bargains, and so on made during the resurrection ritual can mitigate this. I don’t know if those actions are flipping tokens or just granting bonuses, as a “temporary” token flip, but I want to encourage tense roleplay during resurrection.
I’ve talked more about how tokens turn dark than how the PCs turn them light again. On one hand, the world as a whole should feel tilted against the PCs, so this is appropriate. DtD is, after all, a fantasy setting with significant horror elements. On the other, this system isn’t intended to just punish the PCs for engaging with it; that would be pointless. I’m sure there are features characters can pick up from their headers (classes) that turn tokens light.
PCs can turn dark tokens light by aiding others, and can turn more tokens if the aid comes at greater personal cost. Rescuing innocents may have material rewards, but driving back the darkness a little why you do it (as a heroic PC). In this regard the token pool is more like a party-collective Inspiration mechanic from D&D 5e.
DtD also has room for protagonists without a heroic ethos, though more toward antiheroes than outright PC villains. Er, mostly. I’m not sure yet whether these characters engage with the tokens differently.
An act of heroic self-sacrifice turns all tokens light.
I really like the idea of characters bonding around the campfire or over an ale in the tavern, and The Watch is one of the only games I’ve ever seen that added mechanics to this. In principle, I’m interested in picking some of those moves apart and allowing characters to turn tokens light through camaraderie. A conversation that ends in a Persuade check, where failure has some teeth as well, might be a way to go.
Music, dancing, and celebration in general raise the spirits, restore hope, and just generally do all of the things that turning tokens light signifies in the mood. Perform checks probably have greater difficulty in a darker token spread, even as they’re more needed.
Some, particularly wizards, might have formalized ways to face their inner demons and turn tokens light. I think most characters have some source of solace that they can use to try (with a check) to turn tokens light. Gumshoe games have mechanics around sustaining your Sanity and Stability. Those are definitely related to what I’m trying to say here. The characters’ inner worlds are in a push-and-pull relationship with the world outside – I mean, that’s just basic narrative.
In addition to possibly gaining direct combat bonuses from the current count of dark tokens, I want bosses to have more things going on. Turning one or more tokens light to automatically resist or reduce harm, especially magic, springs to mind.
I think a campaign’s BBEGs have token pool that are independent of the campaign’s normal token pool. In this way, I’m also using the token pool as an Apocalypse World/Blades in the Dark-style clock. At the start of play, any boss that is alive and active has a pool of seven dark tokens. The players can affect these pools by undermining the villain’s strength (such as killing their major acolytes or soul-marked thralls), and by making specific preparations for facing them (acquiring a Nemesis weapon engraved with the boss’s truename).
When the boss appears in the flesh (or whatever, you ghost dudes know what I mean), their token pool overrides the standard pool for the duration of the encounter. What I’m going for here is the sense of darkness descending on the heroes – “He’s here.” You know, the feeling that the players got the first time they saw the twin longswords known as the Children ignite in the shadows.
I’m also imagining the boss’s personal token pool as their escape or this-is-not-my-final-form mechanic. When their hit points drop to 0, a boss can turn two(?) tokens light and make a clean getaway, whether through teleportation, flight, running without leaving tracks, or getting this body killed and respawning in another location. Things don’t go so well if their token pool doesn’t have any dark tokens left, though. I think this is the inverse of the resurrection mechanics I described above – there are things the boss can lose or sacrifice to turn tokens dark in an emergency, and maybe some kind of skill check they can make as one of their actions. Maybe they get to turn tokens dark when they explain the awful perfection or philosophical necessity of their aims to the PCs.
One of the things that I see as I look over my notes here is the danger that too many mechanics touch the token pool, so the pool being at one extreme or the other is such a transient state that it’s not an achievement or a particular problem. I would, of course, keep an eye on this in playtesting.
There’s also enough going on here that I want to tone down complexity in other parts of the system. If everything is highly involved, there’s no room for one part of the system to take center stage. This is related to what Robin D. Laws calls “humble” systems in game design. I guess what I’m saying is, if the pool is a sufficient source of interest and involvement, I want there to be fewer moving parts to worry about in the skill list.